Bob Howe - My Musical Life

Chapter Four – 1977

Lee Williams
Lee Williams – 1976

As the clocked crossed midnight, I was playing back-up guitar for singer Lee Williams at the Balmain Volunteer and so dear reader, I began 1977 in earnest as a full-time musician. I had my sights set on England, but direct international flights from Australia were very expensive at the time. The popular way to get to the U.K. from Sydney in those days was via the rather circuitous route of flying domestically on a DC9 to Melbourne, then a 727 to Adelaide and on to Perth, followed by a coach to Freemantle, sailing seven days to Singapore. Next a stop-over for three nights and then flying on to London from there. Travelling solo was also a financial burden, so I signed up for a ‘shared’ package. That was how I found myself on my very first cruise… a Russian ship, more a cargo vessel than a passenger cruiser, sharing a tiny cabin with four bunk beds and three strangers, one of who was a businessman from Leeds who smoked cigars! On the plus side, the people I shared the dinner table with at night, were a younger bunch and they needed an extra person to make up a privately guided tour of Singapore. This proved to be a great experience and luckily, as you will see, I would meet them again later on.

Fender CatalogArriving at London’s Heathrow Airport at 4am, I bid farewell to my new chums and proceeded to join the British passport queue, feeling happy I wasn’t in the long line of ‘foreigners’. My elation would be short-lived. British Customs had just introduced the Red and Green channel system. I decided to go through the Red channel to declare a cassette player (boom-box) that I had bought duty-free in Singapore. Just then, a traveller I recognised from the tour group, backed out of that lane with a similar purchase and the advice he had been given by Customs to go back through the Green channel.  So I followed suit…only to be pulled out of line by customs who wanted to inspect my guitar. I explained that it wasn’t a new purchase and that in fact, it was already second-hand when I had bought it back in Australia. I opened the case to alarmingly find that the case had leaked while it had sat on the rainy tarmac and the guitar had puddles of water on the body. The officers pulled out a Fender guitar catalogue from their files (!) and mistakenly identified it as a bass guitar. I corrected them, probably annoying them more, and somehow they knew that the date of manufacture (1970) would be stamped on the end of the guitar neck which, unfortunately in this case, is obscured from view when the neck and body of the guitar are bolted together. I told them they’d better think twice about taking it apart unless they were qualified to put it back together again and besides, it is possible to estimate the date of manufacture by checking the serial number that was in plain sight. Stymied for a moment, they turned their attention to my boom-box, claiming I was committing a criminal act by trying to avoid paying duty and so they whisked me away to an interview room. Here they also examined my watch and rings while playing the good-cop, bad-cop routine (“…confess and we’ll go easy on you, Sonny Jim”). After two hours they finally gave up, made me pay a paltry amount of duty on the boom-box and I was free. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, my Dad had decided to drive down and meet me and was perturbed that I hadn’t arrived through the gate with the rest of the passengers. He had been questioning the passengers and when it had got to be just the cleaners left in sight, he’d started trying to make enquiries from the other side. Relieved to see me finally appear, we gathered up my luggage and headed back to Rugby town.

my Melody Maker advert

During my seven year absence, my Dad had moved back to our hometown with his second wife and their two kids, Mark and Rachel. They looked after me while I spent my savings on a new amplifier, 250 pounds for the newly released solid-state (transistorised as opposed to valve) version of a Marshall stack (rock -god ahoy!) I also bought a 1971 blue Mini-van for 432 pounds that lasted almost long enough for my purposes (more of that later).  We went to a Rugby pub and I got up and jammed a couple of numbers with the band which was fun, but it soon became apparent that there was practically no local music scene in Rugby, mostly just visiting bands.

My Singapore holiday photos came back from being processed, only for me to find that the sign back at the airport claiming their x-ray machines were safe for films, was incorrect. Rolls of blank negatives were all I had! I vowed not to make that mistake again, as I set off for a quick jaunt around parts of Europe: Paris, taking in the sights and a Bryan Ferry concert; A trip on the unkempt and un-refurbished Orient Express, nearly thrown off in Germany as I’d been sold the wrong ticket; Vienna, with the obligatory visit to the rooms of Beethoven and Mozart; and finally to Rome where who should I meet by chance in the street, but my fellow Singapore travellers. They not only showed me some good eating spots, but arranged to send me copies of their Singapore holiday snaps!

Grandad and 1977 wallpaper!

Returning to England,I began following up a few industry contacts and also catching some great concerts, including Eric Clapton at De Montfort Hall in Leicester, supported by Ronnie Lane & Slim Chance. On Easter Monday I went down to London for the last day of the 9th International Festival of Country Music at the Empire Pool, Wembley. I enjoyed seeing a lot of artists that I never expected to see live, including Larry Gatlin, Crystal Gayle, The Dillards and the incomparable Mickey Newbury. Don Everly performed as a solo act backed by UK band, the Frank Jennings Syndicate and a long haired guitarist named Albert Lee, who sang the missing Phil Everly harmony lines when needed. Headlining the show was Emmylou Harris and The Hot band and I prepared to see my guitar hero James Burton for the first time. But what’s this? Emmylou comes out and there’s Albert Lee again, apparently having recently replaced James in the band. My disappointment was short-lived for when the first guitar solo came around and Albert let loose with a torrent of Telecaster twang, I was an immediate convert! James and Albert will both reappear later in the story…

Meanwhile, I loaded up my gear and went to visit my Grandad, who had become a widower since I last saw him, in Birmingham. He invited me to stay and we reasoned my chances of finding work in Britain’s ‘second city’ would be much greater than in Rugby. He was right and before long I answered an advertisement in the classified section of the evening paper and I found myself auditioning for the Gordon James Band one Friday at 6.30pm and starting work with them two hours later that same night at the ‘Top of the World’ at the old Mecca Ballroom in Stafford, a neighbouring town. Birmingham was also on ‘the circuit’ for touring acts as well and at venues that included the Town Hall and the Odeon, I enjoyed watching legends such as The Gil Evans Orchestra, the Richard & Linda Thompson Band, Ian Gillan,  Dolly Parton and, at the Alexandra Theatre my all-time favourite comedy duo, Morecambe & Wise!

The Mecca Ballrooms had once been a thriving chain of dance halls across Britain, but sadly now they had seen better days and were soon to be converted into bingo halls. In Stafford though, this one was still operating and indeed, employing two bands a night. I would play an hour in the larger eleven-piece band and at the end of our set we would strike up a particular musical motif. The stage would then rotate to reveal a smaller band, four or five-piece, simultaneously playing the same theme. We would then dismount the platform at the back and have an hour off until it was time to repeat the process and play our next set. This meant a lot of hanging around which I didn’t enjoy and when we did play, the repertoire of the time was mainly discMecca Ballroomo tunes which, for me the guitar player, consisted of a lot of repetitious chord vamping (another minor seventh anyone?). To illustrate what I mean; the bandleader called chart number 126 and we all dutifully played the song. A bit later he called 126 again. I leaned over to the drummer and said, “We’ve played this one already!” The drummer explained there was an anomaly in the numbering system and last time we played an alternate chart that had the same number. It was then I realised I had played a completely different song to the rest of the band and neither they, nor myself, had noticed. Such was Disco!

The gig was several floors up with no elevator, so quick smart I took the Marshall stack back to the shop and swapped it for a lightweight solid-state copy of a Fender Twin Reverb amp, made by the Pearl Drum company who were branching out in to other areas. My memory tells me this was the best amp I ever had and I wish I had it now to compare the sound today and see if I still think that was a correct judgement. The excitement of the ballroom gig soon paled and after a few weeks I was scouring the classifieds looking for a way out. It was then that I spotted an ad from a band who were heading to Leysdown-on-Sea on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent for a summer season at the Priory Hill Club and their guitar player had dropped out at the last minute. I rang them up and they were truly desperate! No audition was necessary – if I was good enough to be in a Mecca band, I was good enough for them – and they gave me the directions and said they would meet me at the camp. I gave my notice to the Mecca band and loaded my belongings into the van and headed south-east.

Postcard of South-East England

Anonymous (1977) – Clive, Carl, Bob, John, Ian

The Isle of Sheppey in the county of Kent is joined to the mainland by a bridge and was a quaint but unglamorous place in 1977. My initial impressions were not aided by the fact that the summer season was still officially a week away and most of the businesses and shops were still closed and the weather was far from pleasant. The holiday camp itself was also a disappointment; we were promised individual chalets, when in fact we had to double up in rooms attached to the main dance hall/activity centre. There were no cooking or bathing facilities and the toilets were inside the dance hall, which meant finding the key if an afterhours visit was needed. The public baths were in the village and I still have a 25p ticket as proof. Bath Ticket - 25pIf you soaked too long, the owner would bang on the door to your cubicle. The band had deliberately arrived a week earlier in order to rehearse enough material to play 7 nights a week (plus Sunday lunchtimes) for the next four months! It was here that I pulled off the best, and probably only successful, practical joke I have ever executed. Remember, these four guys have never heard me play and we are all about to spend four months together. It was the first song of the first rehearsal and the bandleader counted the song in and I proceeded to play the most horrible off-key guitar you could imagine. The look on their faces was priceless! As their jaws dropped in disbelief, I held my face straight for as long as I could before breaking into laughter and confessing it was a prank.

We decided to call ourselves Anonymous and our first band photo captured us in non-descript back polo neck shirts. I was making a poor attempt of growing a beard at the time and look like a failed beatnik. Carl the singer and John the organist had worked together before and they had hired, along with me, Mal on bass (my roommate) and Clive Morrell on drums. Clive and I hit it off immediately through a shared love of jazz and egg & chips. He played (and probably still does) drums like Buddy Rich and was far too talented to be in this band. Eventually the season started on June 3rd, the weather improved slightly and we played and played and played. The living conditions did not improve though and soon the grind set in and nerves became frayed. On July 23rd, I had a heated musical disagreement with the bandleader (is there really such a thing as too much wah-wah?) and was fired, given a week’s notice.

'Anonymous' on stage
‘Anonymous’ on stage;
“9pm Children are not allowed on the dance floor”!
Le Richlieu, Fulham 1977
Le Richlieu – New Kings Road, Fulham 1977

The next day was possibly the most productive day I have ever had; I bought the Melody Maker newspaper and answered an ad from a cabaret band in London who needed a guitarist and arranged an audition. I caught the train to London, went to the Musicians’ Union office and jotted down a number from their noticeboard for ‘digs’ (a British theatrical term for accommodation) and subsequently rented a tiny back room over a Spanish Restaurant, Le Richlieu on New Kings Road in Fulham, near the Parsons Green tube station. To top things off, I noticed a poster for Little Feat and the Tower of Power Horns who were playing the Rainbow Theatre the following week, so I bought a ticket for that concert. I then travelled back to the holiday camp and completed that night’s gig! By now things had cooled down and all was forgiven and ‘would I please stay’, but it was too late. After 65 gigs with that band, the next part of my journey was already in motion.

My new accommodation was far from glamorous, but at least I had chosen it myself and I was in London…the capital city! For ten pounds a week I had my own small single room and when I say small, I mean I could touch all four walls without getting out of bed! There was no refrigerator or cooking facilities so I bought an electric kettle, tea and some powdered milk. The bathroom was shared with the other upstairs residents; the owner’s daughter who used to leave the bathroom in a dreadful state and Derek, a jolly Jamaican lad. He used to love it when I sat on the stairs playing the Benny Hill theme tune and would grin a mighty grin (I’m still playing it today). I was offered a 10% discount if I ate in the restaurant below, but I believe after I tried it once I realised it was out of my price range, especially as I had to eat out all of the time. A cafe around the corner named Kathy’s would become a favourite, with fabulous homemade pie and chips and also The Stockpot who did a great Spanish Omelette at their two locations, Earl’s Court and Leicester Square (still in operation when last I visited). Earl’s Court was still a haven for Australian’s back then, having gained the nicknamename ‘Kangaroo Valley’. although not being a drinker, I didn’t find much there for me except for the Australian Express newspaper. I bought a sweater from them with a rather suggestive slogan on it and, probably fortunately for the sake of good taste, it shrank ridiculously the first time I washed it and I never wore it again.

newspaper cutting
from The Stage and Television Today, 15 Sept. 1977

Little Feat LP coverI saw Little Feat on the Monday, auditioned for the cabaret band on Tuesday, secured the job on Wednesday, rehearsed with them Thursday and Friday and played my first gig with them at the White Hart in Southall on Saturday!  The band I had joined was called NANCY AND THE CAST. Nancy Sawyer was an Irish lass with a fabulous voice and ‘The Cast’ was her husband John on bass, Melvyn Jones on drums and yours truly. Our manager was ex-big band leader Lew Sherman who lived in Ealing Common with his wife Dee who handled the money and was the tougher of the two, when the need called for it. We stored the equipment in the Sherman’s front room, so every gig began and ended there as we alternatively loaded and unloaded the old Ford Transit Van which was de rigueur for all travelling English bands, to this day. It was kitted out with old airplane seats between the front row and the gear. Melvyn and myself sat in those seats, John behind the wheel with Nancy in the front. Although we travelled as a band, we were regarded as a cabaret act, so we’d turn up somewhere and do an hour spot and then be on our way. I got paid eight quid a show with a guarantee of thirty-two pounds a week, even if we didn’t have four gigs. It seemed a fair deal at the time, but it didn’t leave much spending money after paying for food and rent. What was left I spent on concerts such as Frank Zappa at the Hammersmith Odeon and a triple bill at The Rainbow Theatre on New Year’s Day 1978, featuring The Ramones, The Rezillos and Billy Idol’s early band, Generation X. As would often be the case, my musical tastes would be far more varied than the music I played for a living! I was also lucky to see some fabulous guitarists such as Barney Kessell and Doc Watson and the wonderful Scottish singer Frankie Miller.

The New Cresta
The New Cresta – much more glamorous on the inside!

A lot of the workingman’s club gigs that Nancy & The Cast played were out of town, but we occasionally scored a posh one down the West End of London like the Royal Garden Hotel and the Royal Lancaster Hotel (where ten years earlier, The Beatles had held their Christmas party!). We also went up to Birmingham and headlined for four nights at The New Cresta in Solihull where my Grandad came to see us perform. There was also a charity event at Caesar’s Palace in Luton where I believe the great Tommy Cooper was also on the bill. To my regret I have no recollection of seeing his show, we must have had to do our bit and travel on, but I do recall seeing him at rehearsal with knobbly-knees protruding from an old fashioned dressing gown tied with the requisite tasselled cord! On another occasion we were waiting to go on after Charlie Williams, one of the stars of the television show ‘The Comedians’. Charlie was a very funny man with a typical Yorkshire turn of phrase and accent that had never been seen or heard on TV before, coming from a coloured man. Charlie Williams He had started his act with a song and there was a guitarist in the background impatiently waiting for Charlie to get to his closing number. The guitarist motioned me over and whispered that he really needed to be somewhere else and asked if I could read the music on the stand and would I fill in for him? So we quietly switched places and when Charlie finally turned around to cue the song, to his surprise, there I was! Taking it in his stride he merely asked, “Does th’ know what we’re doing cousin?” With a nod of reassurance I started to play and he finished his act.

Nancy and The Cast LP 1977At the start of October we recorded a vinyl LP record over three days at Freerange Studios, in Covent Garden, comprising  of the songs currently in our stage show. It was in the home of entertainers VALENTINO and SHEBA who made up Jacklyne Productions. They charged 10 pounds an hour for their 16-track machine. Valentino had begun as Jackie ‘Mr Cordovox’ Farn and was now ‘Valentino and his Electronic Cordovox – the accordion that sounds like an orchestra’ – along with his special guest star Sheba – Queen of the Exotic Dancers (Belly, Tassel or Snake Dancer). When we first arrived at the studio I was a little perturbed to learn that Sheba let the snakes roam free in their house! I never saw them in the studio, but I kept an eye out for them. Recording the songs was a relatively quick and easy experience as we already had them all rehearsed and performed them regularly. I overdubbed an occasional lead line on guitar and was delighted to find the studio had an original Mellotron keyboard. A precursor to the samplers of today, when you pressed a key on the Mellotron it played a tape loop of a real instrument(s) playing that note. I was able to add some string parts and also the classic flute line to the intro of I Don’t Know How To Love Him.

Radio Times cuttingA week later on October 10th, Nancy And The Cast were booked to record an appearance on a new BBC2 Television Variety show called Pebble Mill Showcase, named after the BBC’s Studios in Birmingham, although we actually filmed it in London at the famed Shepherd’s Bush Studio. The show was hosted by popular singer Frankie (Give Me The Moonlight) Vaughan. When I was a kid I remember my Mum having an engraved silver pin brooch in the shape of his trademark top hat. We performed You’re The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me and for the finale, Amen. The show was scheduled for broadcast on 28th February, 1978. The BBC paid us 45 pounds each for the broadcast!

One day, John was sick and had to miss a club date. We carried on regardless (‘the show must go on’) and fulfilled the engagement. On another occasion, Nancy was sick but John resolutely refused to work without her. It was a low-key Sunday afternoon session at the Slough British Legion Club, so Mel and I drove there and sang a few songs for the audience. As we were setting up, the resident organist (these clubs always have an organ and drums duo, sometimes a horn player as well) asked if we wanted him to join in with us. We politely declined, figuring there was less room for error if we played alone. This was in the days before guitar tuners and we would use a tuning fork or pitch pipes as reference so that we were in tune with each other. Since I was playing with just a drummer it didn’t seem too critical on this day…until the organist decided to join in any way when we in the middle of playing Blue Suede Shoes. Sadly the guitar and organ were not remotely in tune and the resulting sound was less than appealing! Still we had done our best and Lew decided he would show his gratitude by buying Mel and I a meal at a proper fish restaurant. Lew was almost a walking stereotype of a Jewish manager although the typical cigar was rather a cigarette that would have burned to ash and dropped all down his suit lapels. He also had an injury that had left one of his arms permanently locked towards his chest. For that reason he would always have a newspaper tucked under his arm, to deflect attention from it. He sat with us while our order was being cooked and paid the bill in advance. Mel and I had spotted two lovely young ladies at the next table and fortune seemed to be smiling on us that day after all. The plates of food arrived and Lew took his leave. As he stood up he turned to the objects of our desire and declared in a loud voice, “What do you think of that girls? I’ve just bought these two lads a fancy fish meal and now I’m going to *@$# off!” Well, red faces and dashed dreams were all that remained for us once he’d left, bless him.

My mini van, snowed inWinter came around and things were getting pretty tough. Mel and I were glad if there was a weekend gig and if we turned up at the Sherman’s a bit early, Lew would perhaps have a bit of leftover roast dinner for us, or perhaps his speciality, a fried egg with Matzo crackers crushed up. My twenty-first birthday passed by. I had a one-bar electric heater in my room and the electric meter sure needed a lot of shillings to keep it going. One cold day I got in my mini-van and turned from the side street where I was parked, on to the New Kings Road. Halfway in to the bend, the rack-and-pinion broke and locked up the steering wheel. From that point onwards the van continued in a straight line across the road, up on to the pavement where there were luckily no pedestrians, and by the time I managed to stop the vehicle, it was just inches from a shop window. A lucky escape, but the repairs took my last hundred pounds of savings, so it was time to rethink the situation. I decided that I had achieved what I had set out to do – prove I could be a professional musician – and rather than continue by going in to debt, perhaps it was time to return to the appealing sunshine of Australia and carry on from there.

Bob, 1977
Me in 1977,
an outtake from the LP cover photo session

I broke the news to the band who were all fine – they understood the financial problems – except Dee who was furious that they would have to have our LP cover reprinted with a new band members photo (despite the fact it was still me playing on it). Needless to say, there would be no more penny royalties coming my way from that recording. In all, I had played 92 shows with the band. Mel would leave a few months later and after a time in Chicago, eventually reinvent himself as a physical therapist in Salem. After that, I lost touch and never heard from the others again…until 38 years later when, via the power of the new-fangled social media, I received a lovely greeting from John and Nancy!

Before leaving London I had tried two last attempts to get out of the doldrums. The first came by accident after I had been to the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm on November 5th to attend a workshop on acoustic blues and ragtime guitar by the amazing Stefan Grossman and the legendary Davey Graham. As I was leaving and walking up the street, I was stopped by a man who spotted my guitar case (sound familiar? See ‘Captain Quench’, earlier in Chapter Two).

Alex Finlayson
Alex Finlayson on harmonica

He was a wiry little Scotsman named Alex Finlayson and he asked if I would accompany him to a nearby Community Cafe at Swiss Cottage and play guitar while he played a few blues tunes on the harmonica.  Nothing particularly memorable eventuated there but there was a follow-up engagement that weekend at a private party in an Italian restaurant. Lured by the promise of free food I agreed! All went as expected, although Alex also had a very introverted friend in tow who had just been released from some form of psychiatric care and was due to catch a train home to the northern provinces first thing in the morning. After the party finally ended in the early hours, I gave them a ride in my mini-van to where the friend was meant to be staying the night, only to find nobody home. We then drove to Kings Cross station, but unfortunately we arrived during the slim window of time when the cleaners went through the place and no-one was allowed on the platforms. Retiring to the station cafe, we witnessed the rather seedier side of passing clientele at 3am, before the time finally came when we could deposit the poor chap on the right platform to wait for his train.

The other attempt happened after I had advertised for work and got a reply from someone needing a guitarist for a punk group. While I thought parts of the movement itself was decidedly dodgy, I had the Sex Pistols original brilliant album (on cassette) and played it incessantly. Eventually, there was a knock on the door and there stood a young spiky-haired punk girl who had come to see if I was suitable for her band. Unfortunately, being winter, I had answered the door in my cardigan and warm slippers. Um, I don’t think so…hah!

Rockex 78 passOn the 10th January 1978, I played a last impromptu gig while attending ROCKEX 78 at the Top Rank Suite in Dale End, Birmingham with Clive, the aforementioned summer drummer. While perusing this musical instrument exhibition, we found ourselves in the Yamaha Room with John and Mal, so the old seaside band ended up jamming one more time.

TelegramWhen it came to picking a date to return to Australia I was in a dilemma. If I stayed until Easter I could see Merle Haggard for the first time as he was scheduled for the Wembley Festival. If I left a week before, I could get back to Sydney in time to see Bob Dylan for the first time. My friend Ian Hook (the person who knew the most about modern music at Festival Records) sent me a telegram to say he would buy me a Dylan ticket for 15 dollars (!) unless he heard otherwise, so my decision was made. I would see ‘His Bobness’ at the Sydney Showground, the first of many of his concerts I would attend, but it would be 18 years before I would eventually see ‘The Hag’ for the first and only time!


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