Getting a Guitar

I  am not sure of the exact date my parents first bought me a guitar, but from looking at remarks such as ‘too frivolous’ and ‘ very disappointing’ in my school reports, I would guess it was Christmas 1961. The Broadway Plectric 1922 guitar I appear to be using in early Pieces of Mind photographs came out in 1961 however, I have memories of having owned a Selmer Futurama III, which was released earlier so I probably started on that guitar and bought the Broadway afterwards.

The Broadway Plectric solids were made by Guyatone, a Japanese company who were based near Tokyo and were modeled on the single-cutaway examples of guitars that Hank B. Marvin of The Shadows played at the time. American guitars such as those made by Fender, Gibson or Gretsch were not widely available and were also too expensive; hence many people like me started with East European or Japanese imports.

Like many in the early 60’s I wanted to join in the ‘new’ music emerging at the time. Some friends from near where I lived and I decided we would form a pop group. One of these friends was Robert Price who for some reason we called ‘Percy’. He and I would later go on to form the Pieces of Mind and would also play at the 50th Anniversary Reunion in 2013.
We begged our parents to get us some electric guitars and my brother was going to be the drummer. My parents bought me a guitar, believed to be a Selmer Futurama III, on hire purchase and my brother got a snare drum. We started practicing and before long it became obvious that my brother was not really interested and also suffered from a complete absence of rhythm, so he gave up. We found a replacement drummer from the school I attended.     

As did many guitarists back then I bought a copy of Bert Weedon’s ‘Play in a Day’. I think it cost me around 5 shillings in old money and, whilst playing in a day was perhaps a bit ambitious, it certainly laid down the foundations. The book showed me how to tune the guitar, play many chords and also gave tips on maintenance. The book is still popular today although it costs considerably more at just under £10 in 2013.

Back then we didn’t have the Internet and whilst tablature did exist it wasn’t widely available. We used the old fashioned way of listening to single records often by slowing down the play speed, which was 45 rpm to the speed of albums, which was 331/3 rpm.

In the 1960s we didn’t have the luxury of electronic tuners so I often used records, usually Apache, by the Shadows, to assist the tuning of my guitar. When we started gigging I bought a tuning fork that you tapped on a solid surface and it would resonate at 440Hz, which is the pitch of the ‘A’ note. I would tune my 5th or ‘A’ string to the tone of the fork and then the rest of my strings to the A string. Sometimes I would use a piano, if one were available in the venue we would be playing. Once I was in tune the other guitars tuned to me.  

I have never taken music lessons and have preferred to use this method of playing by ear. As I have got older and my hearing suffered, I occasionally refer to guitar tablature on the Internet. This ability to play by ear has stood me in good stead and has meant that I can quite comfortably accompany people I have never played with before, playing tunes I have never heard before. Accompanying a singer guitarist friend of mine, who is left-handed and plays a right-handed strung guitar upside down, has been challenging at times. However I usually looked away from what he was playing and just used my ears to work out what I should be playing.  

My first memories of playing live for money was at a local youth club run by St Teilo’s Church in Alway Newport, South Wales, playing instrumentals from groups such as The Shadows, The Ventures and The Dakotas. We played all the instrumentals that were popular such as: The Cruel Sea, Wipe Out, Apache, FBI and Walk Don’t Run. The club allowed us to practice and also paid us to play regularly at dances. I was about 15 and a half.

Percy and I spent some time in various groups formed with other friends in School and from where we lived. One of our drummers was Fred Harris later to star in Playschool and other TV programmes. Fred remembers he spent a chunk of the ’60s as the drummer in a shambolic Shadows-style instrumental outfit in his native Monmouthshire. He claimed the results were ‘so bad we had to change our name every week.’  Well I’m not sure about changing our name weekly, but he’s probably right about us as being shambolic.

Last I heard of Fred was that back in 2010 he was playing in a Jazz band with a band member of Sam Thomas, who used to play in Volume IV, another Newport group. Sam, who similar to me, has moved away from Wales, came to our reunion gig and also sang on the last song, but more of that later.

The more we played the better we became and before long we were getting more and more bookings, or gigs as they seem to be called these days. Most of these bookings were unpaid or for very little money, however, it was certainly better than practicing. We decided we really needed a singer so managed to convince a friend to sing a few songs such as Lucille and Roll over Beethoven.      

We had no transport so had to rely on parents or even public transport. I used to catch one of the Newport Double Decker buses to take me to local venues. I would place my small amp in the little luggage space under the stairs and then sit on one of the seats nearby, carrying my guitar, wrapped in a couple of pillowcases my mother had sewn together as a case. The bus conductor would take a fare just for me and often helped me off the bus with my amp when I came to my stop. Even if buses had conductors today, not many if any would help you off the bus with your luggage, which you probably would have had to pay for.

We occasionally played in clubs where we weren’t old enough to enter. These were usually when we played as part of a Concert Party. The Concert Party would usually consist of a comedian, a magician, a female impersonator and a group. Sometimes one person would do comedy, magic and dress up as a woman. The female impersonator was a chap, who went by the name of Tommy Holloway and would often say ‘I’ll smack your legs’. My time playing with the Party certainly introduced me to playing live in front of Working Men’s Club audiences.      

From reading ‘The Rock Scene Hits’, (Dyer, Jim4), Tommy may have been with the Concert Party run by a chap called Chris Banks who I believe lived in Bolt Street Pill, however, I cannot be sure as I believe Tommy had his own Concert Party. Jim gives an excellent description of what it was like with the Concert Parties.

Jim’s story about his experiences in the Chris Banks Concert Party reminds me so much of my time with Tommy and his show. The patter that Tommy used when introducing the evening’s entertainment were almost identical. There must have been a training course for Concert Party hosts, back in the late 50s and early 60s.     

One of the other groups we encountered when we started playing gigs was called the Charles Kingsley combo containing two brothers called Charles and Kingsley Ward. When we played an event with them, I am sure one of them played accordion, however, I cannot remember which brother. Eventually the brothers, who were fed up of having to travel to London to find a recording studio, bought a farmhouse in Monmouth and built their own studio. This became the World’s first residential studio when it opened for business in 1965. The studio took a name, suggested by Dave Edmunds, which was Rockfield. The artists who have recorded at Rockfield are way too numerous to mention here, but suffice to say it has been prolific in creating hit records.

Waterfield ISE, the band I formed after the Pieces of Mind, recorded there in 1970, around the same time Black Sabbath were making the album ‘Paranoid’.  Their recording topped the UK charts; ours was never released.

My education greatly suffered as a result of the time I was spending with the groups. Looking through my old St Julian’s High School report as I write this really enforces how my term reports deteriorated from when I got the guitar. My main interest, back then was playing guitar live in front of audiences. It’s the thing I most enjoy these days as well so it must be in my blood.

I left school with passes in only 4 GCE ‘O’ Levels out of a possible 8 I took in the examinations. These were English Language, French, Mathematics and Religious Knowledge. I am not surprised at getting good grades in the first 3; however, I was really surprised at passing Religious Knowledge, as I have forever been agnostic to religion.

In the GCE mock examinations the term before I received a mere 35%. I must admit I didn’t take the subject seriously and tried to update some of the parables including the parable of the 10 virgins. In my version, I made the virgins into prostitutes and sent the wise ones down to the Esso Blue dealer for some oil. My teacher was not impressed.     

It was around this time that I was given a nickname, which would stay with me probably to my dying days. During lunch hours at St Julian's a few of us would walk down Heather Road, cross over into Oak Street and go and visit St Julian's pond, near Bank Street. Here we would feed the ducks with bread we brought to school. One of my classmates, who didn’t come down to the pond, thought it was funny and started calling me ‘Ducksy’, I think primarily to antagonise me. Apart from 22 years spent in the Royal Air Force, I have been called that by most of my 60s friends. I have even had to use the nickname as part of my Facebook name, so people would recognise me; also including it in my ‘author’ details for this book.

The time I should have been revising for the examinations was spent either practicing with the group or playing at a club or local youth club. I even played the nights before some of the examinations despite the advice of my parents.

During this period I also started going out with friends with the intention of meeting girls. I started attending Church for a period when I wanted to attend a youth club because a girl I liked went there. In those days, the clergy often ran youth clubs and a prerequisite of attending was to regularly go to Church. When I found out she had a boyfriend much bigger than me at the club, I stopped going to both the youth club and the Church.     

As I got more and more into playing the guitar, my circle of friends got smaller. Before long my only friends were those who played in the band with me or in other bands. I became more interested in playing than going to parties and meeting girls. I know I had one or two girlfriends in my school years, but none lasted more than a week or so. There was a particular girl I really liked who attended the girl’s school at St Julian’s, but we only went out once or twice before sadly drifting apart.  

On one of my rare nights out I went with a friend to watch another band, somewhere in Newport Town centre. We missed the last bus home so we had to walk the 3-4 miles back home to Alway Estate. Whilst crossing the bridge near the castle, the local hard man, whose name was also Tommy came up to me and decided that he wanted to strangle me. Tommy was well known around the town and loved having fights with anyone including the police. He was a big man and towered over me, a mere 5 foot 7.      

My friend, who was considerably shorter than me, went right up to Tommy and asked him to stop as he was hurting me and he shouldn’t be doing that. Tommy was so surprised that someone that small, would confront him in such a way, he released me. At that point a couple of police men walked by on the other side of the road and one of them said to Tommy that he should be gentle with me. This seemed to calm him down and he told me to go. I don’t know what happened to Tommy but I certainly think my friend intervening spared my life.

After leaving school I managed to get a job working as a trainee in the Costing office at Whitehead Iron and Steel Company on Mendalgief Road in Newport. The company was a producer of various rolled steel products and a pioneer, in the UK, of continuous rolling of steel. They had been in Newport since the 1920s and were nationalised in the 1950s. I was one of about a hundred people employed in the office block near the entrance. One of my colleagues in the Costing office was John Beardmore, who would later become the manager of the Pieces of Mind.

It was here that I also met a young man who worked in the Sales team, who were always very well dressed and extremely confident in their manner. Within a short time of meeting, I would start him on a musical career that culminated in him playing at the Isle of Wight Festival of 1970, in front of a crowd that has been estimated of up to half a million.

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