My schooling proved to be a useless training ground for music. At primary school I was rejected from the choir when I hadn't even applied to join. My voice broke before I went to secondary school, rendering it most useful for doing after-shave adverts. My sister played the piano but I did French lessons instead. My brother had a plastic toy guitar, but my mother told my relatives not to buy me any drums. It was an inauspicious start.
It wasn't until I started sixth-form college that a friend wagered he could teach me to play an instrument. He wanted me to play the bass, but by this time I had already started listening to Led Zep's Physical Graffiti and wanted to be the next Jimmy Page. So I saved up £50 and bought a second-hand electric guitar plus 5-watt amp and accoutrements (strap, etc) from a classmate. It was a Les Paul Junior copy with no name on the headstock, but it was all mine!... After that I spent months slaving over Harvey Vinson's Play Rhythm Guitar and then (gasp) Play Lead Guitar, having briefly skimmed through the bits I didn't really think I'd need much (ie all the important things like bass runs, but there you go: the optimism of youth). Next stage: form a band!
The first band was three of us herberts from the sixth-form, plus a mate from school who was doing an apprenticeship and who had always wanted to play drums. Actually it could have been tricky since both he and Dave wanted to play the drums (and both had kits), but fortunately Dave also wanted to sing. We started off a bit punky, but things got tricky when Dave's dyed yellow hair, frizzy crew and leather jacket got him banned from my house. Although he was a good drummer he left us shortly after that, so it was Cyberlizard, Simon on the bass and Rob on the drums. Power trio? A failing light bulb probably had more power. We were all still learning our instruments, so we must have sounded, at times, quite simply chronic. I was reasonable on bar chords but hopeless at being the only guitar in the band, despite buying a 35-watt amp and moving up later to a second-hand Fender Telecaster (which I still possess). Rob seemed more interested in doing drum solos and drum rolls around the kit, during which he would lose any sense of keeping the rhythm. Simon was quite good on the bass but frankly none of us could sing for toffee. Places to practise were a problem too. I couldn't drive, so my father had to drive me to wherever we managed to get on the day. We did try Simon's garage for a bit but the council threatened his mum with a £200 fine (in 1979!), so it was either Rob's bedroom (cramped) or occasionally the church hall. A friend of ours who heard us in the latter told us that the bass was the only one playing in time.
Maybe I'm being a little hard on the joyful idiocy of youth. After all, none of us had any musical background, but we were convinced we could do great things. And it was the first time I'd tried songwriting, which I really wanted to do. Actually, we wrote some reasonable compositions: it was other people's that we couldn't play for toffee, although we reckoned we could do most of the Zeppelin catalogue (ha!ha!). The name Black Art itself came from a short period of shallow fascination with occultism that I had. After that we found out that Simon's first name was Athelstan, and when we'd stopped falling about laughing (apart from Simon), that was what we renamed the band to.
We plugged away for about 18 months, until I went away to university, and had a couple of jams after that. We occasionally had a couple of other people in: one moody girl who played the electric piano and was quite good, and one guy a bit older than us who could sing but could never commit himself to do anything for more than five minutes. Early on you tend to find a lot of would-be musos like that. Over the years I lost touch with both Rob and Simon, which was a pity as we were great friends and had some good times together, but both of them had sold their gear before then.
Stupid name, maybe a stupid idea. This was my first university band, big on ambition and short of achievement. It was going to be an ELO clone, complete with keyboards and a string section, and we were going to have a drummer, get regular gigs, etc.... Actually, we did at one point have a full line-up, but I don't think we ever practised together as such.
Looking back on it, I must have had a nerve even considering the idea. None of us had any money, certainly not enough to buy the sort of equipment needed. We had a few songs, plus some parts written by me and Chris, a rather esoteric archaelogy student who'd built his own bass. He was quite good as he was doing a music subsidiary, but his devotion to Genesis drove me up the wall. (Later he decided to become a punk and got some bondage trousers and wrap-round shades, but that was in the future). The third stalwart of the group, Andy, was a genuine English loon who was a genius at improvising on the viola but considerably eccentric. The other five or six members we had in at various times, were, frankly, drifters: dare I even use that much-abused musician's term, timewasters! We variously had a pianist, another guitarist, a cellist and a violinist, plus a guy whom we unsuccessfully tried to entice into playing the drums for us. Looking back on it, he made a wise decision. He and the other guitarist joined other bands, the rest just, well, did other things like try to get elected to be Student Union reps, etc. Looking back on it, if we'd have had a drum machine, a sequencer and a module, it might even have worked. After the first year it didn't really come to anything, so the three of us just had odd jams now and then.
However I must mention the Electric Poxopoly Factor, a tongue-firmly-planted-in-cheek effort at the end of the second year arising from my old roommate's suggestion. He had found a slightly manic first-year drummer and so we teamed up with him and Chris and performed an impromptu gig on the stairs of one of the halls of residence one morning early after the summer ball the night before. REVENGE! Yes, we were loud...
After I came back from Germany and Russia I took a while to recover from being ill, but soon had the itchy finger syndrome again. For a while I didn't think there would be anything happening, but then I met a second-year, Andy Carter, who was into synthesisers and had some interesting keyboard equipment. Unfortunately none of it was polyphonic, so my parents kindly agreed I could have a Casio home keyboard for Christmas (complete with built-in speakers and line out!). Thus armed, we needed to find someone to actually play it. A first-year who had puked on our hall carpet volunteered for the job: he knew Nigel, the psychology student who wanted to be a singer. Actually he was pretty raw, but he had such charisma that he could pull it off by appealing to the undergraduate sense of the anarchic. We also found someone who could play the drums: I can't remember where we got the kit from, but we had it on the night of our one and only gig in Van Mildert College Junior Common Room, for which we got no money and no free beer (my memory's a bit hazy at this point), but which was a night to remember.
And where are they now? Last I heard, Andy was married to Helen and living in Yorkshire, involved in Round Table or some similar charity; Mark the keyboard player is an accountant; Nigel was selling pharmaceuticals; and the drummer Andrew married Elaine and is living in Berkshire. Verily the path from undergraduate days to professional conformity is an easy one.... (Hey, I'm a conformist too! [Sometimes]).
Graduation, which meant back home to the south coast with little money and no job, and feeling a bit down and out. Fortunately I met up with some friends and acquaintances from teenage days, and we were all a bit restless and wanted to start a band. Prime mover in this outfit was "Hat", a gifted maverick who'd graduated with a good degree but now spent his days painting squash courts. He was on the bass, and Raymond the greenkeeper on guitar. John was on vocals and "Sharkie" (named after his huge wide grin), Hat's brother, on the drums. I decided I was ready to try the keyboards, especially as Raymond also possessed a Roland SH-101, one of the great monophonic synthesisers of its time. I still couldn't drive, so had to beg lifts or even take a taxi to the village hall some miles away where we used to rehearse. My parents were a bit more tolerant of idiosyncratic musos, but they balked a bit at Raymond's earring and generally piratical appearance (actually he was one of the nicest blokes you could meet).
I suppose musically we were proto-psychedelic, for which the distorted organ sound of the Casio plugged through an amp was perfect. Although it was a bit rough in places, we were actually quite tight, and got to gig a couple of times at the local club. I don't recall seeing any money, though, but I didn't really expect any. Why I left in the end was my increasing uneasiness over some of the lyrics, plus my inability to join in with some of the, er, other recreational activities.... But I liked them, although I haven't seen any of the Sons since.
Yup, you heard it right first time.... Jazz Riffs was the name, jazz was the game. Well, maybe "jazz" is stretching it a bit....
The story starts when I first moved to Greater London. Apart from the congregation at the local church I didn't know any people, certainly no musicians. One day I was walking home from work when I heard the welcome sound of drums coming from an upstairs window of a house. I decided to investigate and knocked on the front door. That is how I met another drummer called Rob.
At the time we both had different tastes in music, but Rob was doing some sort of thing down at the Lewisham Academy of Music with other musicians. He'd met some guys who wanted to do jazz, and asked me if I wanted to join. Now I'd never really played a note of jazz before, apart from maybe a couple of minor seventh and major ninth chords, but jazz was quite intellectually respectable (sic) so I agreed, thinking it would be fairly easy. Ha! Anyway, he took me down to the Prince of Orange in Bermondsey (then a jazz pub, now a gay pub) to meet the pianist and saxophonist of this embryonic outfit. Their names were Everton and Attila (I kid you not). Everton was a black guy in a sheepskin coat who looked like he should have been holding a microphone on Grandstand. Attila was a shorter Cypriot whose first words were more or less, "You with us all the way, Cyberlizard?" We watched the jazz group for a while (including a guitarist who looked like Clement Attlee and a middle-aged lady closing her eyes and swaying around doing "Sweet Georgia Brown" - that's trad, dad!) and then Everton proudly announced he'd come up with a great name for the band.
"What's that?" we asked, trying to keep things keen.
(Sound of beer being spluttered back from mouth to glass by the drummer and guitarist).
We started rehearsals in the locally notorious Catford Studios, part of an old tenement block converted into a practise room on each floor. A coloured guy joined us on bass, and was really quite good. The others were fair to good, but I was chronic at jazz. Until then I'd only played rock bar chords, and while my lead breaks were melodic they didn't have the right feel to them. Everton would grunt with suspicion, "That's a bit rocky, i'n't it?" Our biggest handicaps however were (a) we were all pulling in different directions, musically (b) arising from (a), we could hardly put a single composition together.
Our one and only public performance arose on a bank holiday, when Everton or Attila (I think) announced we had a booking at some fair in Greenwich. We drove over there with our gear, only to find the fair didn't seem to be expecting us. Instead we found ourselves in the car park, setting up between two vans with a tarpaulin stretched over the top and a generator running in the back of one of the vehicles. The chairs for the audience looked suspiciously small, ie as if they'd been taken out of a primary school classroom. Things looked worse when we realised we were going on after the Punch and Judy man. Incidentally, I peered into the back of his booth and was surprised to see what looked like hundreds of empty Swan lager cans.
The Punch and Judy man was a bit deaf. After he'd done his act, he turned to us. "What's the name of the band?"
"Jazz Riffs," grunted Everton before anyone could stop him.
The Punch and Judy man turned to the audience. "Ladies and Gentlemen.... MR JEFF GRIFF and his band."
The rest of the performance followed in similar fiasco-like manner. The guy who ran the Lewisham Music Academy had decided to come along with his synthesiser and bring a mate of his on guitar, so there was no musical direction, no cohesion, no structure and no break in the music. Attila and the bassist sat in the back of one of the vans looking cold while Everton sat behind his piano looking mightily cheesed off. Most of it was the two guitars thundering away, interspersed with a few chords thrown in from one of the keyboards and a steady if varied beat from Rob on the drums, who couldn't hear anything apart from the generator and was thus doing a very long drum solo. The audience melted away to just two Goth/punky types and some smart-aleck who kept calling out for 'Stairway'. I still have the photos somewhere.
After the gig Everton and Attila quickly disappeared and much later rang Rob up. They wanted to enter a jazz competition but said they didn't want Cyberlizard in the band.
Rob was quite polite but firm. "Sorry, but Cyberlizard's a mate..."
We never saw any of them again after that.
To be continued.....
Go on to Part II
Back to Music Page
Back to Homepage