Once, in a lift, in a hotel, in Frankfurt, Jimmy Page said to me “Are you heading for the bar by any chance?”
I responded casually in the affirmative and accompanied the greatest electric guitarist from the greatest ever band, for drinks. We sat and chatted for about an hour until we were interrupted by Chris Welch, the greatest rock journalist, from the greatest magazine (you get the picture) with whom Jimmy was to due to give an interview. Jimmy offered his hand by way of farewell and by way of fixing that moment forever, I looked at that hand and its remarkable fingers and my mind’s-eye took a photograph.
The gentleman’s toilet in The Glanrafon Hotel in Bangor, I would hazard, has rarely played host to a gentleman. Mike Peters of The Alarm has probably had a piss there mind you, so the urinal itself has at least borne witness to the toileting of at least one well-known member of the rock and roll fraternity. Did ‘Seventeen’ play the Glan? Anyway, it was one of the more important appointments with the porcelain that found me, long-haired, leather-jacketed frontman of the hottest new band in Bangor, relieving myself next to Malcolm, frizzy-haired, bespectacled landlord of the house.
Carpe Diem! The conversation ran along these lines.
“Hiya Malcolm, I was wondering if we could get a gig upstairs…we’ve just got back from doing some stuff down South…”
“Have you gorra tape lad?”
“Aye, I brought one just in case… here… ”
“No I don’t wanna hear it. You’ve got one. Bangor lads?”
“Plenty of mates?”
“Loads… and we’ve done Plas Coch… ”
Malcolm zipped up his flies and tucked his landlord’s white shirt into his black landlord’s trousers and I followed suit with the zip on my unfeasibly tight and in hindsight, distinctly risky, jeans. At the bar, the diary was opened and my fate in the margins of the footnotes in the further margins of the more obscure and distant realm of rock history was secured. The gig was to be on September 10th 1982….
I feel it is only fair to qualify at this point that certain descriptions even thus far have stretched the fabric of the actualite. For ‘hottest’ in the context of new Bangor bands in the summer of 1982, it might be safer to have said ‘only’ and for the ‘stuff down South’, a more sober appraisal would be ‘The Angel Inn, Aberystwyth on July 14th 1982’. Fittingly this routine expansion of the truth that began in a Bangor toilet more than thirty years ago shows no sign of abating. In the scuzzy, dark pools of rock and roll aspiration, the minnows will mouth pretty well anything at the keepers of the oxygen, in order to rise anywhere near the surface. In my time I have thus gasped my way to some tantalising glimpses of the light beyond the algae, only to sink slowly and inexorably back to the familiar mud. It is little more than an idle, delusional whimsy on my part to think that anyone would actually be interested in my journey around the weeds and the slime of the pond into which I have fallen but I have names to drop, tales to make taller and as a result of the compulsion to avoid having a ‘proper job’ and sing in a band, a pecuniary deficit which, I wildly entertain, could be salved by the diversification of my talent. For this purpose and in the continued bending of the truth, I’ll be a writer… as well.
The gig at The Glan in Bangor was White Summer’s third, following Aberystwyth and a support slot at the Plas Coch nightclub in Anglesey. That gig was supervised by a man named Les Morrison and his band Offspring. He was patient and helpful and never forgotten. The learning curve for a new band and by that I mean a group of people who’ve never been in a band before, is a steep one. It is rather like the way a five-year old child learns at an astonishing rate – so the child-band makes its mistakes, learns and moves on pretty quickly. There is little room for slow-learners in this shady-world of advantage-seeking and bare-faced, out and out lies. One of our former school friends reviewed the gig in the local newspaper, generously reporting an attendance of 70 punters (40 at a push) and informing all that it was our ‘self-penned, beautifully co-ordinated rock and roll’ that wowed the faithful, as distinct from our two Led Zeppelin covers and the slew of mid-tempo 12 bar blues that enabled us to pad out a meagre repertoire. ‘Tangerine’ required a re-boot halfway through, when seeing someone pointing a camera, our drummer, Ale, directed his attentions toward the lens as opposed to the first beat of the bar under the guitar solo. I still have the picture of him grinning through his kit – a priceless ‘what happened next?’ moment.
“We’ll try that again folks… he’s broken a stick..” See how the lies start?
Gary Gibbs, he of the newspaper, was gently tugging at the tail of our myopic bombast in his usual dry way and we knew it. The readers of The North Wales Chronicle did not… and anyway, the greatest lesson of them all is housed in surely the greatest cliche – any publicity etc etc. The raging tonsillitis that I had developed in the run-up to the gig melted away like snow in spring at the sound of the Glanrafon’s applause.
It had begun, as mentioned, in Aberystwyth on July 14th 1982. Those were the days of truth and honest endeavour. I doubt very much if Amnesty International made as little money from a gig as they made from my first outing on the boards at Aberystwyth’s Angel. The very first lesson we had learned from the occasional sarcastic musing of someone who had happened to hear our embryonic rehearsals, was that it might pay to spend some time away from our old school hall. How to put it? Try the biblical ‘ a prophet is without honour is his own land’ or the sagacity of ‘if a tree falls in Aberystwyth, no-one will hear it in Bangor’ to my particular favourite ‘don’t shit on your doorstep – at least not until you own the house’.
We decamped for part of the summer of ’82 (not quite the ring of ’69… but… ) to a remote farmhouse near Llanfihangel y Creuddyn. This was the way of rich and famous mega-stars in the 70s. Had Page and Plant not retired to Bron yr Aur? Of course that was our template, the first chapter in the guidebook that would take us to Madison Square Gardens. Do kids of 18 have these dreams now? I hope so. By way of slight variation, the length of our stay was not determined by the opening night of a U.S. tour but more prosaically by the fact that we all had to sign on at the (Un)Employment Office in Bangor. Thus we headed south immediately after signing on and came back thirteen days later.
White Summer worked pretty hard during that time and knocked together about an hour of original material into shape, padded by the afore-mentioned 12 bar filler. Ale and Carl laid down the grind and Huw soloed endless improvisations of things he’d heard on my extensive collection of Zeppelin bootlegs. Our technical support came in the shape of Davy R, who cooked (he was in the TA) and made every piece of our equipment except the microphones and the instruments. He was soon to drop out of Liverpool Poly with the deadpan “I knew more about electronics than the lecturers…” and to this day I have no reason to doubt his words. Dave quite literally made a PA, a bass amp and a guitar amp for White Summer from chipboard and Maplins components. Had his life taken a different course Davy R would have toured the world as a technician for the biggest bands. Totally unflappable, an instant, on the spot solution for anything and everything electronic – a genius. He is no longer with us but without his life there would be none of this to write.
In the time-honoured fashion of rock and roll’s transport solutions Dave’s mum lent us her car, a blue Hillman Hunter estate, which Carl drove. Ale had a motorbike, very handy for a drummer… The Tardisian nature of the Hunter allowed it to swallow vast amounts of equipment, three fragrant young men and a calculated number of ‘Party Seven’ beer cans – the rock band’s friend. We took turns on the pillion seat of Ale’s bike, an experience which got our bodies accustomed to the pumping of the adrenaline that was to come.
It is now becoming clear as the tale unfolds, that the referencing of 70s megastars reflects less our actual progress (unsurprisingly) and rather more a vague plan based on complete and utter fantasy. We reasoned that in spite of a total absence of proven ability, were we to follow the mystical trails blazed in the history of Led Zeppelin, some of the magic would rub off and ensure that we would emerge from those be-charmed winding roads with tall shadows and the like. Whilst these might sound like the cringeworthy naive actions of a bunch of hopeless romantics (which they should, because they are) they form the basis of another terribly important child-band lesson. If you are going to blag yourselves gigs, where people pay to see you, doing something at which you might be considered less than expert, at the very least, you have to believe in yourself. If you believe in what you are doing (however inadequate) and you communicate an unfailingly faithful belief in that act, it is surprising just how many other people will begin to share that belief. As long as punters aren’t simultaneously comparing White Summer to Led Zeppelin, as long as alcohol is on sale and as long as you front it up, you’ll be fine – well, mostly fine.
So with home-made chipboard cabinets filled with mail-order electronics, we installed into the rear room of The Angel in Aberystwyth probably the weirdest looking band set-up ever seen, anywhere. The choice had been to play our set in this stone-walled back room at the invitation of Amnesty or hastily arrange a set of covers for a caravan park in the Vale of Rheidol. We opted to take the 25p per head (Amnesty got the other 25p) on offer at the Angel instead of the guaranteed £100 on offer at the Park. Let’s face it, our place at the top table of rock wasn’t going to be accelerated much by entertaining readers of Caravan Weekly at this stage.
One thing, apart from the pre-gig terror and one thing alone sticks in my mind about my first ever gig. We played the set at exactly one million miles an hour and at that speed had some 250,000 miles to go at the point at which we’d run out of songs. Salvation came in the portly shape of an old man, who, looking back, was about 45 coupled with the memory of a Led Zeppelin bootleg called Blueberry Hill. This was a recording of a concert on the US west coast early in Zeppelin’s career where, during the course of the improvisations we so admired, they played a version of the Fats Domino song of that name. We’d copied it and began playing it as our last song with some 15 minutes of our allocated time to go. The punter in question, in his scruffy suit, recognising the tune – the only recognisable tune we’d played all night, indeed some might say the only ‘tune’, took to the floor in front of the stage and began to waltz with an imaginary partner around the sparsely populated room. Another lesson learned. If a drunk in a cheap suit wants a dance, always follow your instincts. To general goodwill, he and I stumbled around the floor whilst the band played on… and on… and on. When I finally got him to release me we had finished our first ever gig.
There were thirty people there. We made £7.50. It was the best £1.50 I’ve ever made. I hope a prisoner of conscience got a week’s food out of it. I’d begun the endless journey.