By Ian Harris
"Don't believe anything you hear and only half of what you see". Eh? "Whispering Concrete man, call me Whispering Concrete. Do you mind if I sit in, jam with you? I've got my sax and I really dig your mood man". This guy was about 5 feet tall, wearing an ex Army greatcoat, long scarf and scuffed boots. His beard had particles of the last meal he had eaten and his shoulder length hair had argued with a comb. He was looking for a gig.
It's late summer 1968. I'm standing in the shabby basement of 39, Gerrard Street in Soho London, formerly Ronnie Scott's 'Old Place' jazz Club before it relocated to Frith Street. I had re-named it 'The Coffin', a death trap with no fire exit and only a cramped stairway to street level. Health & Safety...not in the 60's!
I was in a band, a blues band called 'The Earth', 4 young white men playing the blues. I had lately answered an Ad in 'Melody Maker' the mighty organ for musicians and music fans. The Ad was for a band to run a club in Gerrard Street and the lease holder Jack "call me Mr." Fordham was looking for an enterprising group to run the place for him. We met up with the intimidating Mr. Fordham, an ex boxer and Soho 'entrepreneur' who had several local businesses including London's first hamburger joint in Berwick Street market. "Well boys" he began " You can have the club on friday and saturday nights, no alcohol, I'll supply refreshments, take the money on the door and give you a percentage". "Sounds good to me" I said nervously, the band all agreed and after all, we had nothing to lose.
Let me introduce the band.
Phil, Barry, Alan Owen and I had known each other since schooldays. In 1964/5 we were Mods and had socialised together going to clubs and witnessing the best of live music. Georgie Fame, John Mayall with Eric Clapton, The Yardbirds, Graham Bond, Peter Green and even Blues legends such as Sonny Boy Williamson and Howling Wolf. It was an obvious move for us to form a band, being inspired by all that great music. We played cover versions of Soul and Blues classics, gigging around the North London area.
In 1967 we felt we needed someone to take on lead guitar duties as Alan Owen was feeling the strain of playing both rhythm and lead. We advertised in Melody Maker and auditioned various guitarists that weren't suitable until Alan Parsons answered the Ad, arriving at Phil's house one Saturday morning in a Messerschmitt Bubble car. Alan is 6 foot 5 inches tall and to witness him climbing out of a Bubble car was something I will never forget. He had with him his hand made electric guitar and looked and played like Jeff Beck, In fact his audition piece was Jeff's Boogie, he was offered the gig on the spot. There was no looking back for the band now. We couldn't believe our luck and the band's repertoire changed with Alan's bluesy style and he even played flute! At the time of Alan joining the band we were called 'Conviction'. On stage we wore 'Waiters' jackets, which I hand dyed a different colour for each band member and stencilled with convict's arrows...!
After a few weeks rehearsal, our first gig with Alan Parsons on lead guitar was in North Finchley. The hall was packed, we played the first set of soul classics as 'Conviction' and after the break Alan joined us on stage, I announced that the band was now called 'Blues Tattoo'. We now played the blues - 2 bands for the price of 1 - and the crowd went crazy for us. I often wonder if any other band has changed their name during a gig! I have a demo single of our very first recording from that year. Recorded in the front room of Barry Mitchell's parents council flat in Kingsbury, London, two tracks recorded in one take around a solitary microphone - Rock Me Baby and Telephone Blues, live and raw!
London in 1968 was a great place to be - pre terrorism, post hippie - the purple haze hangover of 1967, people still smiled at one another in the streets and there was a whiff of rebellion in the air. There was so much live music and tons of small clubs catering for the burgeoning Blues Boom as it was called. Untouched by the presence of 'New Man', playing the blues was a vital living thing, the music of hard truths and sexual energy. Leafing through a copy of Melody Maker from the time, I see gigs listed for Muddy Waters, Free, Taste, Ten Years After, Aynsley Dunbar, Keef Hartley, Pete Brown's Battered Ornaments and an early incarnation of Jethro Tull.
So, it's Saturday night, about 9 o'clock in the evening and I'm on the Bakerloo Line to Piccadilly Circus, the nearest Tube station to the club. I am dressed in second hand clothes bought from 'Jumble Sales', my hair is long and I am unshaven, living the dream or what? The Coffin Club opened at 10pm and we play 2 or 3 sets between then and 4am. We always took the equipment on Friday evening in our battered old Bedford van. We had pooled our limited resources to buy it, £45 well spent!
The business part of being in a band is so important, everyone working for the common good. It's a true democracy when you all agree but a fascist regime when you don't. We never allowed one ego to dominate and got along just fine most of the time. All of us had reasonably paid day jobs except for Alan Parsons who had what to our eyes was the most enviable profession, assistant engineer at Abbey Road recording studios! He was paid a pittance and never had any money. We all thought we could earn extra cash from running the club but sadly Mr. Fordham was less than fair and we crawled out of that place with less than £1 each for a weekends work. However, money was not our driving force, we just loved playing.
To show our commitment to the band we bought Alan a beautiful Cherry Red Gibson S.G. guitar on 'Hire purchase' to replace his hand made effort. Alan is a gifted and passionate musician and we all believed he would be successful. He has since gone on to have a fantastic and well documented career in the music business.
Now re-named 'The Earth', our stage set up was austere by today's standards. Phil's basic Ludwig drum kit flanked by two amps, a Vox AC30 and a WEM Bass amp, one Mic for me and one for Alan, a Selmer P.A. system with a Watkins 'Copy Cat' echo chamber, no frills, no money! We played Blues standards and cover versions from the likes of John Mayall, Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac and our heroes, Cream.
I designed a flyer for the opening night of the Coffin Club, had 500 printed which Phil Brockton and I handed out to passers by in Oxford Street ( 'ladies' got in for free on the opening night! ) I also painted a sign to attach to the railings of the club featuring a 'Gandalf' type Wizard with his clutching hand reaching out to help punters down the stairs ( I was reading Lord Of The Rings at the time! )
The club was really successful and was packed every night of our tenure of about 9 months. Playing Friday and Saturday night, 10pm until 4am and working a day job, I think we paid our dues to the blues. We built up quite a following of blues fans and tourists, and even got a favourable write up in 'Disc and Music Echo', a weekly music paper at the time. Playing until the early hours of the morning, the atmosphere was sweaty, smoky and fizzing with excitement. Anyone who fancied a 'jam' was invited on stage for the last set. I have memories of many great moments jamming with consummate musicians, renegade jazzmen playing the blues! We never took it for granted, if only we had recorded some of those historic gigs.
One fateful night at the club, a record producer came to see us play, word had got round about us and he offered us the opportunity to record an L.P. We hired a basement room beneath a cafe near Swiss Cottage, wrote 9 original songs in a week and recorded them in 1 day in a small recording studio off Tottenham Court Road, London.
The producer bought in an Organist by the name of Roy Quilley as part of the deal. Roy's inclusion caused a few problems within the band, the atmosphere changed and Barry and Phil decided to depart. They had been playing in a pub with a guitarist who laughably, thought he was Jimi Hendrix, he wasn't. Shortly after recording the album, the band was no more. The L.P. was never released but I managed to hang on to an original shellac copy.
"One of the great lost albums of the 60's" a journalist told me recently when I played him the album. I will describe it as 'Blues-Prog-Rock' with a large helping of great guitar playing from Alan Parsons, his first ever recording. It could have been a contender.
The original Ronnie Scott's Club in Gerrard Street opened in 1958 and played host to some of the greatest names in Jazz of all time. Sonny Rollins, Roland Kirk, Bill Evans, Dexter Gordon, and the best of the British players including Tubby Hayes, Phil Seaman and Peter King who, among others, stood on the bandstand in that tiny basement in Soho, The Beatles even went there for a night out in 1963. The club became a rehearsal room in the daytime during 1968 and was used by Jimmy Page with the fledgling Led Zeppelin, there should be a blue plaque on the wall outside the historic 39, Gerrard Street!
I can't actually believe that my friends and I played in the same space as those greats of music. We were young and naive, thought the world was at our feet and anything was possible.
I wonder what happened to Whispering Concrete?
Record Collector magazine are releasing The Earth L.P. 'Elemental' in December via their Rare Vinyl series. It's a limited edition of 500 with my sleeve artwork.
Ian Harris, 2015.