Monday, October 31, 2011

Dubai blues

I have just - just! - returned from doing 5 shows in Dubai with The Chicago Blues Brothers! We nearly made it there around this time last year, and to be honest I was half expecting this to be cancelled right up to the moment we walked on stage for the first show, but it was all ok in the end. Full story to follow as I made diary-style notes throughout our time there which I intend to reproduce here in one form or another in the not-too-distant future. But there's a more important thing to write about today...

We left Heathrow Airport last Monday afternoon; as we were walking towards the departure lounge CBB mainman Pete suddenly stopped me with a hand on my shoulder.

He looked serious. He was serious.

'I need to talk to you mate - about something bad... I was on the phone to Paul Cope yesterday - who links me, you and Paul?'

As I said the name John Saxon I had a horrible feeling that I knew what was coming next.

'He's...' Pete hesitated ' longer with us.'

When I asked what had happened he just said 'he walked into the sea.'

I first met John in the early 1980s, around the time that I first met Pete. They were in a band called The Immediate - Pete was on bass, Paul was on guitar and Alan was on drums. John sang and played occasional lead guitar. He was amazing. He and Paul were a fine songwriting team and the band were good but with no disrespect to them it has be said that it was John that you had to see. For a start he looked great - with his collar-length hair, leather jackets, beaten up jeans and scarves he was completely at odds with the fashions of the time but looked so cool that it didn't matter. He was good looking (as someone put it to me once, 'he could win a Mel Gibson look-a-like contest; Mel would come second') with a cheeky chappy grin that had woman literally falling at his feet - even my mum fancied him! Of course none of this would have mattered if he couldn't sing, but he had a voice that was somewhere between Paul Rodgers and Rod Stewart. Yes, that good. He liked blues, soul, rhythm and blues, even '60s pop and he could sing any of it. In short he was brilliant. We got on well (and it must be admitted that not everyone did get on with him, or he with them...) and he seemed to like me, possibly because then as now I was something of an outsider and so was he. We got talking one day about guitar players and he revealed that he'd been a friend of the late and undeniably great Paul Kossoff, a player who has always loomed large in my record collection. When said that I was a big fan he'd met him when Koss came up to him one day to ask him where he'd got his jacket from. If ever you needed to sum John up in one line it's that an internationally famous rockstar guitar hero had asked him where he got his clothes from rather than the other way around. John was very proud of his friendship with Paul.

There was an aura about John that I've rarely if ever encountered before or since. If you ever asked him how he saw himself he'd invariably give you a very simple answer. He was a bluesman. And he was. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the music and the people who made it. Put simply, he loved it and indeed lived it, maybe even lived for it. Maybe that's why he was so good. He looked like a rock 'n' roll star, sounded like one, acted like one - but if I've learned anything in this life it's that you don't get something for nothing, and John was living proof of that. He suffered terribly from anxiety, depression, lack of confidence - I talked to him about that almost as much as I did about the music. While I was in The Price he, Paul and I (later with Simon Thompson on harmonica) formed an acoustic trio called The Diving Ducks, who regularly confused and confounded folk club audiences for a few years in the late '80s. Working with him I saw first hand just how hard he sometimes found performing, how it could leave him crippled with insecurity while all those around him including the band told him how great he was sounding. And he did sound great - if I've ever worked with a better singer than I can't think of their name at the moment. I'll let you know if I ever do... later he sang with The Chain Gang, Raw Deal and M.G.M. (including a show at The 1987 Reading Festival) and it looked as though he was going to get the success that he so richly deserved - but for whatever reason it was not to be. He formed an alliance with Duffy Power, another great talent who never fulfilled his potential, but then drifted away from performing and disappeared from view.

And then, suddenly, out of the blue sometime in the mid '90s he got back in touch with me, writing letters that showed that he'd lost none of his humour (there are off-the-cuff recordings of him from the Immediate days as 'Art Vincent' a bizarre comedy character that defies any attempt at analysis here!) and intellect, pouring scorn and derision on the then-current music scene (we never could quite agree on Oasis!) as well as sending me compilation cassettes and later CD's of everything from song demos to rare blues and soul recordings that meant so much to him. I would occasionally suggest that we could get together and play some music, but he never said yes. Shame. The last time I saw him was when he and his wife Cathy came to a Chicago Blues Brothers show in Rochford back in December 2006 - he looked apprehensive as we shook hands but within a few minutes the old John started to return. After the show he told me that I was playing 'better than ever' which was a compliment and a half coming from him. I said how great it would be to see and hear him singing again and he looked sad, saying 'no' with a resigned shrug before cracking a half- smile - 'well, you never know...'

Alongside old blues material The Diving Ducks played a version of 'Ooh La La' by The Faces. John was a massive fan of the band and always loved to sing the song - but he would never perform anything by Free. It always got the impression that it was almost too close to him, or something. One day in his flat I was doodling on my guitar as he left the room, I think to get a drink. When he came back in I happened to be playing the riff from 'Be My Friend' - he looked a bit shocked so I stopped but he said 'you play that really well, do it again'. He then sang the song beautifully; I started 'Love You So', one of my favourite songs of all time, I thought he stop me but he joined in and gave one of the most emotional performances that I've ever been part of, just me and him in a small room. We never played either of them again but I'll never forget it.

As I type this sentance The Faces's live version of 'The Stealer' by Free is playing in the background. I first heard it on one of his compiliation tapes so it seems appropriate. I love it, but it'll never sound quite the same again.

My little world is sadder for knowing that John is no longer part of it. God bless you Jonno - I hope you've found some peace at last.

And here is Cathy's very moving tribute to him.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Cool Britannia rehearsal photos

Here are a few shots from August's Cool Britannia rehearsal -going from left to right in the last picture that's me with Chris Teeder on keyboards, Matt Hewitt on vocals, Dave Ruffy on drums and John Sorrell a.k.a. Johnny Squirrel on bass guitar. There are theatre shows being booked for next year but I for one hope we do something before then - after all if we sound half as good as we look here it should really be something to look forward to...

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The tracks of my tears

I've just had a message from Kris Dollimore to say that he won't be able to do tonight's gig at the Load of Hay due to family illness. Curses!! There was a lot of interest in his performance and I was really looking forward to it - oh well, it's more important that his family are well don't you think? We'll reschedule the date as soon as we can; in the meantime the next Sunday night show there features The Bullet Blues Band (guess what type of music they play?!?) on November 6th - they feature The Chicago Blues Brothers band's very own Johnny Squirrel on bass alongside the vocal and harmonica talents of the excellent Ed Stacey, and it should be a cracking evening.

Thursday night saw myself and Matt from The Chicago Blues Brothers appear at the Bacchus Bar in Bishop's Stortford as The Rock Show. We've talked about doing something like this (a duo with backing tracks) for a while so when the opportunity arose (thanks Mike!) it seemed like a good chance to try the idea out. We'd talked through some song ideas over the last few weeks; we then set about obtaining backing tracks and working separately on the material. Unfortunately we didn't get chance for a rehearsal (we tried to arrange something but time and circumstances conspired against us as so often happens) which was a shame as we got lost here and there, although in our defence your honour the onstage sound was a little unusual... actually the stage itself was pretty odd, being set back into the wall several feet up in the air. This resulted in the music being for want of a better word 'contained' in the alcove making it extremely loud and overpowering (well that's what it was like where we were, I've no idea what it was like out the front) which took a few numbers to come to terms with. Mind you I'm sure every other act that appears there has the same problem and they no doubt cope with it so I'll stop making excuses and just say that it's given us a few things to think about if we're going to take the duo idea further. From my point of view I'm going to have a think about guitar sound - I used a Pod plugged straight into the P.A. system which didn't sound too bad in itself but had to be played back though the monitor for me to hear what I was playing. All well and good - except that it's been ages since I played a show with that sort of set up and I found it difficult to get the balance between the guitar and the backing track right. This also made timing difficult (hence my comment above about getting 'lost here and there') as well as making it hard for me to hear my backing vocals (I'm not the best singer and I need all the help I can get!) In the future I think I'll use an amplifier - I'm just more used to hearing the guitar coming from behind me! - although I guess the use of the Pod is another thing that could be sorted out at a rehearsal. In the meantime we've got to find some higher quality backing tracks, I've got to get more confidant with the backing vocals (this could take some time!) and, let's face it, we've got to learn the songs better, as the sound balance wasn't the only reason we 'got lost here and there'. Nevertheless every journey starts with the first step, and The Rock Show have made theirs. Let's see where we find ourselves next.

Friday it was time for another Ruts D.C. rehearsal - myself, Segs and Seamus spent a few hours in the latter's kitchen (rock 'n' roll eh?!?) running through quite a few of the songs from last week's Brixton bash. Seamus sounded great and Segs and myself were so enthused that we had to go to the pub afterwards to, er, discuss tactics. Everything's moving in the right direction, interest in the shows is starting to increase - good news all round!

Following on from the (ahem) success of our bread and Q.P.R. songs the next Balcony Shirts song extolls the virtues of the ukulele - to this end yesterday morning your humble narrator found himself in a several-sizes-too-small lab coat playing the only 3 chords that he knows on a SpongeBob SquarePants ukulele (yes, you read that bit correctly!) for the benefit of Scott's video camera and to the bemusement of several customers. I'll let you know when the finished film is available for viewing - in the meantime I'd better stop blogging and start phoning people who might be coming along tonight... bah!

Sunday, October 16, 2011


And so it begins - I spent much of Tuesday in the labyrinth that is the Jamm club in Brixton with Segs running through possible songs for the upcoming Ruts D.C. shows. With the new Alabama 3 album being mixed in the studio a few doors down he occasionally had to leave to listen to a possible finished track, which makes the fact that we managed to run through something like 14 perspective numbers all the more remarkable. I left with a CD of 6 rough mixes of new material and some scribbly notes that detailed key changes, endings, segues and other possible arrangement ideas. I'm likely to be back over there for some more work sometime this week - I'll let you know how it goes. In the meantime the return of Ruts D.C. has made it onto the Alabama 3 website, and the Aural Sculptors blog currently features a downloadable gig from 30 years ago in Edinburgh - excellent!

Last night saw an extended Chicago Blues Brothers band play at a very large house in the splendidly named Weston-Under-Lizard. We were playing for the Earl of Bradford at a party for his wife Penny's birthday; normally I end up coming away from events like this spouting left wing rants about the British class system (click here to see what I mean!) but I don't feel too bad about this one. Perhaps it's because I'm really tired as I didn't get in until after 4 a.m., perhaps it was because they all seemed like nice people - who knows? Mind you I didn't like the 'too many cats, not enough recipes' sticker on the back of a Land Rover that I saw on the way into town so maybe it's best that I keep this posting short... band-wise Andy joined us on trombone with Dave on trumpet and Jimmy depping for Richard on saxophone; Pete was added next to Tracy on backing vocals and Steve was on drums with Marc on percussion. Other than that it was business as usual with Squirrel on bass, Ian on keyboards and Matt and Mike as Jake and Elwood - add me on guitar and there was a mighty twelve (twelve!) of us on stage with Big Tel and Dave DJ-ing. Apparently the organisers wanted a 'big' line-up on stage - who said size isn't everything? We were due on at 10 o'clock but finally went on 45 minutes later - our 75 minute performance included rarely-played versions of 'Superstition' and 'Hard To Handle' and saw a fair amount of dancing from the assembled multitude. Big Tel and Dave saw the evening out until 1 a.m. with what sounded to me to be a good selection of seventies disco material although they told me afterwards that they were a bit put out by people requesting Blues Brothers material. Maybe we should have played for longer?

Well, maybe. Again.

And there's just time to mention that Kris Dollimore returns to the Load of Hay next Sunday 23rd - if you're in the area it'd be good to see you...

Sunday, October 09, 2011

The Eton Rifles

It was the 75th anniversary of the Battle Of Cable Street on Tuesday - given some of their more dubious links there's a peculiar irony about it taking place during the Conservative Party conference don't you think? I somehow doubt that there were any commemorative events being held at the conference... still I did see an item on the London News about it, and The Mirror had quite a big article on it so at least it wasn't completely bypassed by the media. Back in the late 1980s The Price did a few gigs for Cable Street Beat (perhaps best thought of as the musical arm of Anti-Fascist Action) at a time when it seemed that extreme right wing politics were everywhere; at a show at The Electric Ballroom in Camden Town (we weren't playing - I think it was The Men They Couldn't Hang among others?) I met Solly Kaye whose memories of the day itself really were extraordinary and whose speech from the stage redefined the word 'inspirational'. In the meantime the ever-excellent Daily Mash summed up the Tory gathering better than I ever will - many a true word spoken in jest, as they say...

In the meantime 2 great - make that great - guitarists have recently left the building -

I only saw Bert Jansch play once (at a blues festival in Oxford since you ask) but I'll never forget it. I'd heard his name a million times but had not really heard him play - as he hunched over his acoustic guitar playing finger-busting chords whilst singing with a chilling other-worldy voice I realised why the likes of Jimmy Page always name-checked him as one of the all time greats. Along with Davy Graham he defined acoustic guitar playing for many, and he'll be very sadly missed.

I never got to see Marv Tarplin play but I've certainly heard him. And so have you although you might not realise it - his work with Smokey Robinson And The Miracles mark him out as one of the great players and indeed songwriters of what for many was Motown's golden era. That's him on 'Tracks Of My Tears' and 'Going To A Go-Go' for instance, and if that's not proof of his brilliance then I for one don't know what is. Another sad loss.

And away from music Steve Jobs has died, although I'm sure that you're aware of that as it's been in the news rather more than the above two stories. As I sit here typing on my MacBook I feel that even I owe him something, although I'm not really sure what. I'll have a think about that and let you know if I come up with an answer!

The Chicago Blues Brothers returned to The Theatre Royal in Windsor this weekend for 3-shows-in-2-days - previous visits have been for longer which I guess is indicative of how quiet things are for the band these days compared to the last few years. Still they were 3 good shows with Friday evening probably just edging Saturday evening in the 'best of the bunch' stakes; the Saturday matinee (hey, that rhymes!) was a bit odd to say the least, with only a hundred or so people in the audience and although we still gave a good show it was difficult to 'get going', if you know what I mean. Ben was depping for Dave on trumpet on Saturday (it was the A-Team all round apart from that) and he did a wonderful job, particularly on 'Minnie The Moocher'. Around halfway through the second Saturday show Squirrel and myself both realised that the black dots that were appearing on the stage were sweat that was dripping from Matt - that man's energy never ceases to amaze. After Friday's show Mike, Matt and myself decided to go for a drink - sometime after 2 a.m. we left The Old Ticket Hall in a rather more confused state than the one we had arrived in. Maybe that's why we decided to walk though Eton to the Slough Travelodge where we were staying rather than get a cab? Maybe that's why the matinee show was a little odd? Maybe that's why the last section of this posting is somewhat disjointed?

Well, maybe.

Friday, October 07, 2011

The dreams of children

Back near the start of July I mentioned in these hallowed pages that I'd recorded some guitar for somebody but didn't say who - this was because I'd been asked not to say what I was doing and who I was doing it for by the people that I was doing it for. Confused yet? But now dear reader the story can at last be told...

I was recording with Ruts D.C. - or to be pedantic, Segs and Dave Ruffy. As mentioned in the last posting the band emerged from The Ruts after the death of singer Malcolm Owen; they released a single 'Different View' / 'Formula Eyes' and an album 'Animal Now' for Virgin Records followed by a dub album 'Rhythm Collision Volume 1' for their own Bohemian Records before calling it a day in 1983. Now nearly 30 years after the first installment it's time for 'Rhythm Collision Volume 2' - incredibly I was asked to contribute to the album (I think I'm on about half of the tracks) and from what I've heard I can honestly say that it's going to be a great album. It's being mixed at the moment (literally at the moment as I type this!) and should be finished shortly. But the really exciting news is the prospect of some live shows in November and December as special guests of The Alabama 3 - well it's certainly exciting from my point of view as I'm in the band for the gigs! No, really, I am! Joining Dave on drums and Segs on bass are Molara on vocals, Seamus Beaghen on keyboards and me on guitar. Me!

The full story (and indeed the gig dates) can be found in an excellent article on John Robb's 'Louder Than War' website. To say I'm looking forward to this is the understatement of the year. Rehearsals are due to start next week - I'll keep you posted...

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

'Vinyl Rules!' Episode 3 - Laurel Aitkin / The Screamin' Lobsters / Choir Militia

Time at last for a very belated episode 3 of 'Vinyl Rules!' - here are three 7" singles, all of which feature the talents of Paul Fox on guitar.

Spring 1980, and with The Ruts in limbo as singer Malcolm Owen battled heroin addiction Paul, Segs (bass) and Dave Ruffy (drums) backed Laurel Aitkin on two singles - 'Rudi Got Married' / 'Honey Come Back To Me' and 'Big Fat Man' / 'It's Too Late'. The band were credited as The Unitone, and both were released on Secret Affair's label I-Spy Records; I've not got the first one but I have the second one, which was produced by Paul and John Sparrow. It's something of a curio from my point of view (I'm not much of a ska fan to be honest) but the band play it well, and if nothing else it shows that they were capable of turning their hands to pretty much any style of music with ease. They also recorded a John Peel session with him around the same time, although things changed irrevocably for the band in July when Malcolm died from an overdose. They regrouped as Ruts D.C. and made some very fine music - but that's another story for another time...

When Ruts D.C. finished in 1982 Paul formed the splendidly-named Foxes And Rats with Rat Scabies from The Damned on drums and Martin from Watford (!) on bass; I saw them at (you've guessed it!) The Fulham Greyhound where their psychedelic power trio set (think Hendrix, Cream and, er, Steppenwolf and you'll get the idea) left the mainly punk-powered audience somewhat bemused. After that he and Martin stayed together in The Screamin' Lobsters, who were basically a rock'n'roll band that mixed a few original numbers among the old classics. One such original song was 'Lobrock' which emerged on a single in 1983. It rocks along in a suitably cheery 'we're-not-taking-this-too-seriously-and-nor-should-you' manner as did the doo-wop styled B-side 'Oh Oh I Love You', and as such is a good representation of the band. I saw them a couple of times (I bet you can guess where!) and they were an entertaining bunch although once again Ruts fans were seen leaving the venue with furrowed brows.

Paul's next move was to team up with the Lob's singer Harry Matthews to form a rather more commercially orientated act which went through several names (The Cut, Wildlife and The Big Boys among them) before settling on Choir Militia. Their only single 'Sharpen The Knife' / 'Nothing That Would Interest You' came out in 1986. The A-side is interesting in that it's a re-write of an unfinished Ruts D.C. song that was colloquially known as 'Jangly Boo' when it opened their live sets in an instrumental form in late 1981. The single itself follows the same basic structure (it's since been issued as 'Last Exit' on various Ruts compilations) and sounds very much 'of it's time', with slap bass, string synthesizer and a huge 'gated reverb' drum sound that could only have been recorded in the mid-80s. To my ears it sounds a bit dated next to the stripped-down sound of 'Lobrock' which ironically hasn't dated quite as much, but it's still a pretty good record with some great playing from Paul. The b-side's not bad either, although the band had several better songs like 'Bombs Away' and 'Take It Out On You' that would have made better records in my opinion - I remember hearing studio recordings of them at the time but I fear they'll never get heard now. Shame! Oh and before you ask, yes I did see them at The Fulham Greyhound (and very good they were too) and indeed The Price supported them a few times early on in our (ahem) career which meant a great deal to me personally as Paul was and indeed still is one of my all-time favourite guitarists. (I stayed in touch with him right up to his untimely death and was involved in his final gigs, the story of which can be found in the July 2007 section of these hallowed pages.) In the meantime these singles show a very different side to his playing in than was heard in The Ruts, and are all far better than their current obscurity suggests.

And it's the 4th annual Paul Fox tribute night at The Breakspear Arms in Ruislip on Saturday 15th October - I can't be there myself but it should be a good night...