This probably isn’t really a Busk England post, but I wanted to write it anyway. I hope you enjoy it. Back to normal soon!
It is something of a family trait to be nostalgic for things we didn’t actually experience the first time round. My father will fondly tell me that he remembers “the trolley buses turning round here” as we pass through some epic Northern town in the car. Later I’ll discover they finished the trolley bus service in 1947, a full decade before he was born. His father was the same, a wonderful man who seemed to me to happily inhabit an England that hadn’t existed for a long time. Perhaps I had no choice but to turn out the same. I was an unconventional rebel as a teenager. Where others would discover their own new and vibrant culture, I made it my business to know more about my Dad’s favourite music than he did, arrogantly correcting him across the dinner table with trivial points about exactly what year Jethro Tull first played at the Carnegie Hall, or the precise order the guitarists suffered breakdowns and left Fleetwood Mac. It must have been exasperating for him, and I’m sure he wished I’d got into trance music and cheap cider like a normal teenager. I even grew a pony tail.
Whilst I may have missed this musical era the first time round, the splendid thing about modern medicine is that most of these aging rockers are still going, in some shape or form, perhaps with a limited number of original members, but mostly with an infectious joyfulness that suggests they can’t quite believe it either. Bands that had their heyday over 50 years ago are still there to be found, and I’ve seen a lot of them. Even Edgar Broughton is still going.
So I found myself in Nottingham to see Gong at the Rescue Rooms, a band who formed out of the sticky residue of Canterbury Scene legends Soft Machine and a lot of drugs somewhere between 1967 and 1970. A band who famously were liked too much by too few people, abandoned several times on financial grounds, and then restarted on pure sentiment, like a murderer helplessly drawn back to their crime scene. I’d dressed for the occasion in an electric lilac smoking jacket, silk shirt of many flowers, giant top hat painted with a pastoral scene, and carrying an 8ft stuffed squid. I’d adopted a similar get up a few years ago for the Magic Band, Captain Beefheart’s legendary backing group. My Dad saw them at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester in 1972 with the Captain himself, and the footage I’ve seen of their concerts of this era always show an extraordinary procession of nutters attending with flowing robes, implausible head gear and perhaps accompanied by their favourite standard lamp. I was therefore a little disappointed to find the rest of the audience for the Magic Band dressed like gig goers everywhere. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been. Hippies grew up, married, got jobs, had kids, concert gear became children’s dressing up kit, and then years later they found the wardrobe barren when they were finally free to indulge in a night’s nostalgia. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the audience doesn’t cut quite such a dramatic series of figures these days.
The Magic Band had been great. Led by the singular character of Drumbo, aka John French, who’d for years performed the near impossible task of converting the Captain’s incomprehensible ramblings into something approaching performable music, they were probably tighter than the original band had ever been, now that they no longer needed to deal with the intractably difficult personality of their former leader. He’d retired to the desert to paint in 1982 and died of multiple sclerosis in 2010 without ever performing again. Drumbo had clearly seen it all in his long and extraordinary life, and signed my squid without so much as blinking. Should I ever consider myself to have led a life worth documenting in autobiography, it shall be called ‘Drumbo Signed My Squid’.
The Gong audience were slightly more off the wall. Floral bell bottoms and psychedelic shirts abounded. Even in the pub before the gig, we could all identify one another, kindred spirits who’d never quite put down the torch even as the advance of life had smoothed our edges. A healthy mix of ages too. I’d seen Black Sabbath on their final tour, and enjoyed witnessing how nostalgia renders nearly everything family friendly. This was a band who created moral panic back in the day. Branded as Satanists, despised and boycotted, bound surely to cause the fabric of society to collapse. Their exact same material was now transformed by context into a rousing family sing-along. Grandparents brought grandchildren and sat together, maybe three generations all singing with broad wholesome grins on their faces;
“Satan’s sitting there, he’s smiling
Watches those flames get higher and higher
Oh no, no, please God help me”
It can only be divine or equivalent intervention that has kept Ozzy on the stage all these years, a walking one-man anti-pharmacy. Shambling, incoherent, he hasn’t changed at all, but context renders him a figure of gentle fun. After 50 years of the Prince of Darkness, society hasn’t collapsed, and we’re all rather fond of him.
Gong don’t have any of the original members now. Daevid Allen, the brains behind it, passed away a few years ago, and the band carry it forward in his name. Which rather raises the question, how long can these bands go? If the principle becomes accepted that members can come and go, so long as the entity remains alive, then why not for generations? For me, that’s fine, so long as they are both writing new material and true to their roots. If it’s just the old classics, then really you’ve got a tribute act. To truly be the band, there has to be fresh creative output. Perhaps also this way my faint hopes of getting a gig in Fairport Convention might still be realised.
Gong pass this test with flying colours. They’re touring their new album, ‘The Universe Also Collapses’, a confident work that both fits the rich history of the band, and introduces a harder rock edge than I’ve heard from them before.
Following a superb support slot by Ed Wynne of the Ozric Tentacles, a legendary band in their own right, Gong took to the stage, playing a set I can only really describe as like being in the cab with a singing whale as it steered a juggernaut full of flowers into a supernova. They played for two psychedelic hours, managing maybe as many as 7 songs in that time. Audience members grabbed my squid’s tentacles and waved them slowly around in the air, delighting the band.
My highlight of the gig was the security man at the front, there to deal with the non-existent trouble makers. I’m sure you can picture him, muscular in a tight short-sleeved black shirt, aggressively trimmed hair, curly wire emerging from the back of his head connecting him to the other security guards in the hive mind. He projected a mixture of thorough misery and deep confusion. As waves of psych-prog-jazz crashed over him, he was trapped and hyper alert, like a caged fox. Unable to leave his post, he attempted to play with his phone, but numerous pot head pixies emerged from the screen at him and there was no respite. Even when the band stuck in a bite-size three minute number, it was in 13/8 and his obvious terror merely grew. He scanned around for trouble, hoping for a reckless crowd surfer or a fight, but there was nothing on the horizon, only the worrying possibility of a mass outbreak of peace and free love. Eventually it was too much and he cracked, abandoning his post, feigning a crisis elsewhere, and we were left unsupervised to enjoy the music.
It’s been one of the great themes of my life so far, the chance to enjoy the music of the generation that went before me as well as that of my contemporaries. I’ve seen Jethro Tull, Page and Plant, Warren Zevon, Jefferson Starship, Roxy Music and many others. Sometimes they’re still sensational, sometimes they’re a bit past it but still clearly having a great time. That’s ok too, we can have a good night together, and I feel that by buying a ticket I’m finally giving them back something for the music I’ve inherited and never paid for until now.
The only one I’ve really regretted was seeing Peter Green. He was just such an empty shell. There he was, playing the notes, but the vital spark had gone. His masterpieces were written under the weight of mental health problems that crushed him, and from which he has never truly emerged. I wish I’d just given him £20 and gone home without seeing what he had become. He’s welcome to my money, for everything he’s given me, but it’s clear his music won’t be something we can share together in person any more.
Gong brought their set to a close;
“I love you all!” exclaimed Kavus, the lead singer, before visibly being struck by a confusing thought. “But I love everything.”
We dispersed into the night, happy and free, heading home to put our clothes in storage for the next time and revert to whatever it was we are during the day.
Thanks for taking the time to read this. My ‘Busk England’ project is entirely funded by what I make as I travel round. If you’ve enjoyed it, and would like to support me as I do this, please consider making a paypal tip to firstname.lastname@example.org or through the button in the archive – link here.
Treat it as you would a busker — a few coins in the hat all add up. Everything I get from this will be put back into the project. Ta!