I was 14 when I started drumming on the covers of old books (snare drum) and cushions (tom-toms) and later on a prehistoric drum kit that actually had real skin on the floor tom-tom.
What got me started was my schoolfriend, Dave Thurogood, whose older sister had a boyfriend in a rock band who played drums. Dave and I had similar tastes in music and I used to go over to his house to listen to his excellent selection of records and watch him drum along to the songs on a chair that he used as a make shift snare drum. As I observed him, I thought to myself, I could do that, and so I bought a pair of drum sticks and began to play. Some months later, I noticed a modest drum kit for sale in the local paper, which I was able to buy with help from my Father.
I taught myself to play, and practiced religiously in our garage. Fortunately for the neighbours, it was located at the end of a long garden, but less fortunate for me, was that it was only about thirty feet from the grave stones in the adjacent cemetery that were clearly visible through the garage door windows when I played. I had an audience of sorts during those long winter nights of practicing, but it was quite scary at times, particularly when a heavy mist hung over the cemetery, or a howling wind found its way through the gaps in the garage doors and blew all my candles out! I would be left in total darkness and it wasn’t the beating of the drums you could hear, but the pounding of my heart as it tried to break free from my chest. I eventually solved the power problem by working at Woolworth’s for a week. My wages were just enough to buy a 50 metre electric cable, which I ran from the house via the kitchen window and up the garden path to the garage. With the flick of a switch I had electric light and mains power too. This was immensely liberating as it enabled other musicians to play with me and subsequently led to the formation of my first ‘garage’ band. The line-up consisted of my school mate Dave (whom I had persuaded to lay down his sticks) on bass guitar, my Godmothers son, Robert, on organ, and yours truly on skins. It was an all instrumental affair and tremendous fun.
However, as my appetite for rehearsals and practice grew, I started drumming in the daytime during school holidays, as well as doing the evening ‘graveyard shift’. This landed me in trouble with the local council whose offices where just beyond the cemetery about 70 metres from me and my very loud drum kit. Clearly they did not appreciate my rhythmic creativity and issued me with a written warning to desist, or face legal proceedings. Fortunately this was only a temporary set back as shortly afterwards we moved to a big solidly built Edwardian house in Bushey, Hertfordshire, about six miles from Borehamwood. The house walls were so thick that I could play the drums in my bedroom without disturbing anyone.
Our house at 14 Cardinal Avenue, Borehamwood, Hertfordshire was a location venue for a number of scenes from episode 16, (Second Time Around) of the world famous Inspector Morse TV series, starring John Thaw. There is one shot of ‘Mrs Mitchell’s’ garden, 92 minutes into the episode that briefly shows the brick wall of the garage at the far end of the garden. Shortly after filming though, the property was sold and replaced with homes for the elderly.
One evening in 1969 while station surfing on my radio I tuned in to a concert where a rock group was performing with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra live at the Royal Albert Hall in London. It was Deep Purple and their Concerto for Group and Orchestra written by their organist, Jon Lord.
This unique event was a catalyst for me as it embedded in my mind the idea that it is possible to fuse these two distinctly different genres of music and create something powerful, yet beautiful. I became an instant fan and bought all Deep Purple’s albums the next day. Their drummer, Ian Paice, was awesome and I paid tribute to him, and the immense talents of Jon, Ritchie, Ian and Roger five years later, when I ordered a brand new Premier Resonator (twin shell) drum kit in the colour deep purple.
I still have the ‘purple’ drums but my permanent kit now is digital; the magnificent Roland TD-30KV V-drum set up that is neighbour friendly, and in my view, the ‘Rolls Royce’ of digital drum kits, though its replacement (the TD-50KV) is even better. I also use DW Hi-Hat stands and twin kick drum pedals, plus Vic Firth FI American Classic sticks.
Buying the Purple Kit
Whilst at college I worked weekends at a psychiatric hopital as a cleaner. It paid well as I received double-time for Sunday working and thus the job kept me in cigarettes, tie-dye T-shirts, fuel for my motorbike, drum sticks and drum heads. My first drum kit consisted of an assortment of drums, cymbals and stands put together from other kits – none of which were the same colour. Consequently, it did not look or sound that good – especially for an aspiring drummer who wanted to be a rock star!
In the early seventies musical instruments were a lot more expensive – in real terms – than today, and finance was not widely available for teenagers with no credit history. So I decided that if I wanted a professional looking and sounding kit I would have to work hard and save up for it. The one I particularly wanted was Premier’s ‘Resonator’ model, which had the addition of an inner shell on each drum. This produced a deep, rich sound that was also incredibly loud. It had been designed in association with top British drummer, Kenny Clare, and thus was a very prestigious instrument to own at that time.
I was earning about twenty-five pounds a week from my week-end hospital job, but was spending most of that, so I calculated that if I could work full-time with overtime during the summer holidays, I could probably save up the greater part of the money I needed by the end of the summer holiday. And, as I had already saved up some money, I calculated that I should be able to get the kit by Christmas that year. So I solicited the co-operation of a Charge Nurse I knew well by offering to give his ward the deep clean it needed but had never received. It was a geriatric ward where some of the patients were incontinent, so he was grateful for the extra cleaning and happy to sign my timesheets that authorised me working on his ward ten hours a day, seven days a week. After the first week of this arrangement I went to collect my wages but was told that the ‘computer’ was not programmed to pay out more than seventy-nine and a half hours of paid work in any one week, and that my time sheet was for eighty-four! I was ushered into the wages office where they made up my money manually and warned me not to exceed the ‘computer limit’ again as it caused them extra work. I discovered later that my bumper pay packet had exceeded what the Charge Nurses usually earnt and that it had caused resentment in some quarters. So I dropped my hours into the ‘safe zone’, kept my head down and the money rolling in.
I had teamed up with my old friend, Anthony Stevens, in this endeavour which made the long hours and hard work much easier. The ward had never been cleaner and in November that year I became the proud owner of a ‘Premier Reasonator’ drum kit in the colour purple. I had saved up four hundred pounds to buy it, which would be about ten times that amount in today’s money.
It was a major milestone in my life, the memories of which are still vivid – especially the day I went to the music shop to collect my brand spanking new purple kit. Hammonds of Watford was one of the biggest musical instrument retailers in the country and their manager, Ron Petit, had been the conductor/band leader of my secondary school (high school) orchestra, which was unusual as his first instrument was drums. Well, on that special day Ron had set my kit up in the shop and tuned the drums to perfection. The kit looked fantastic and he asked me if I would like to hear how it sounded. Well, naturally I said yes, and so he then proceeded to demonstrate how good a drummer he really was. The kit was awesome and I don’t think that it has ever sounded better than it did on that extraordinary day.
What is odd about all of this is that when I was twelve I was given the opportunity of being taught to play any instrument, except that at time, I had little conscious interest in music and so declined the offer. However, had I chosen to play drums, it would have been Ron Petit who would have taught me!
Playing the Purple Kit
Once I had mastered the basics, I took some lessons from a drum teacher, but did not stay with him long as he insisted that I change from using the matched stick grip to the old military style grip which I did not find comfortable. But I am grateful to him for teaching me the double-stroke role.
In my parent’s house in Bushey, I was surrounded by musicians. Our neighbour next door but one, was the famous jazz trumpet player, Kenny Baker, who at that time played with the drummer, Jack Parnel, who was also musical director of Associated Television’s (ATV) resident band. Moreover, Jack’s drummer was the talented, Ronnie Verril, who had the same kit as me. So you can imagine my delight when Ken offered to take me to watch the band in rehearsals at ATV’s studio’s in Borehamwood, and to meet and chat with both Ronnie and Jack.
At the far end of our avenue lived a builder called Bob who was also and semi-pro bass guitarist with his own four-piece dance/cabaret band. Well, I would never had known this, had he not knocked on our door and asked my Mother to speak to the man upstairs playing the drums. His reason for calling was to offer me a gig that evening as his usual drummer was ill. He said that my share of the fee would be thirty five pounds (a fortune then) and I agreed without hesitation – even though I couldn’t sight read and did not know any of the numbers on the set list.
“You’ll be fine as I’ve heard you play, but should you get stuck, just follow me,” said Bob.
Such confidence I thought, as I started to pack up my drum kit. To be honest I was not worried, as during the five years I had been playing I had learnt to improvise and could lay down a beat to most things, and besides the fee was too good to turn down. Confidence and positive thinking is a wonderful thing and the gig went extremely well, though being a free style prog. rock drummer I found playing waltz’s and quick steps a bit of a snooze.
Bob must have liked my drumming though, because he kept offering me work, and I was happy to accept.
The Big Gig
The biggest gig I did with Bob’s band was another watershed moment in my life as a musician.
It was a Christmas dinner-dance for 1500 employees of a local firm at Borehamwood’s Civic Hall. The evenings entertainment included a knife throwing cabaret act that the band were contracted to support, though Bob never mentioned this when he offered me the gig. And, as my cut was a hundred and fifty pounds, I didn’t ask too many questions. So perhaps you can imagine my shock when the knife thrower came into our dressing room just before the show was due to start to hand out the sheet music for his act. I looked at Bob with an expression of absolute incredulity, because I could not read the ‘dots’, and he knew it. He was momentarily lost for words knowing that he had dropped me in it big time, and I knew that somehow I would have to bluff may way through. After about ten seconds of silence Bob regained his usual confident air saying that I would be fine, not to worry, and to follow him. It was his stock answer, but on reflection, it was a compliment too because he obviously thought I had the necessary ability and self-belief to pull it off.
We spent the first half of the show playing background music while the guests dined, after which, it was time for the business of knife throwing to begin.
To set the scene: a scantily clad young lady stood provocatively in front of what was akin to a giant dart board, as her male partner made himself ready fifteen feet in front of her, armed with a fist full of deadly knives.
He expected that the drummer would add to the drama of his death defying act by performing drum rolls and cymbal crashes with expert precision at the appropriate time. But as I could not read the music he had so diligently provided, things took a slightly different turn. In the circumstances, the only thing I could do was make it up as I went along, and hope that it was in tune with his specific requirements. So this I did, and although I interpreted what I thought he wanted reasonably well, what I played was, shall we say, like a train that did not always arrive at the station on time – much to the knive throwers consternation. Indeed, I recall that on one or two occassions, the poor man turned to me in dismay with a look that gave me cause to wonder whether he was going to throw his knives directly at me, instead of his lovely assistant, who with tantalising expertise, he had always managed to miss. But to the amazement of all of us on stage, the audience thought that my apparent ineptitude was deliberate, that my exploits were part of the act, and consequently, every time my sticks struck home in an unwarranted fashion, roars of laughter poured forth from the crowd. Indeed, they lapped it up, and for the first time as a musician, I became the focus of the audiences attention. I loved it too, and later left the stage unpuctured, uplifted and in a state of utter peace, as any fears I had had about performing live were completely erased.
The ‘Angel’ Audition
Moving forward twenty-two years, I recall the strangest of client meetings, when, working as a financial adviser, I called upon a nursing home owner to review his life assurance. But as I was unable to better his existing arrangements the conversation switched to our respective leisure pursuits and I discovered that he played guitar and had his own band. So when I mentioned I was a drummer, his face lit up, and he beckoned me out of his office to a large single story building, about four times the size of the average garage. It had a huge reinforced double door, about a foot thick, which to my great surprise and delight was the entrance to his band rehearsal studio. It was fully equiped with a custom made PA, amps, speaker cabs, mic stands, keyboards, and, of course, a drum kit.
He went over to his Marshall 100 watt stack, plugged in his Gibson Les Paul, and then invited me to get behind the drum kit. We jammed continuously for about twenty minutes, after which time he asked me if I would be interested in joining his outfit as they had recently become drummerless. I agreed, and that was the beginning of two years playing in a semi – pro female fronted rock ‘n soul covers band.
Whilst I have never had a yearning to play other people’s material my time with Angel did give me greater insight into the construction of conventional pop songs. And this was certainly beneficial as these are the types of numbers I have been writing as EL-Lea-Eye-Em – albeit that most of them are firmly rooted in classical music.
Rehearsals with ‘First Things First’ & Meeting Phil Collins
During the eight years (1973-1981) that First Things First was active we spent over a thousand hours in rehearsal studios, working on our material. I booked dozens of different venues and some of the places turned out to be real dives that required our gear to be carefully guided down narrow dimly lit staircases into windowless cellars with no ventilation. It was especially tricky when Phil needed to use his electric baby grand piano (bought from the hit prog. rock band, Argent) as it took four of us to lift it! And then there were those monster JBL bass bins and the rotating Leslie cabinets that pulled as many muscles as they built!
In those days sound equipment was bulkier and heavier and, as we had no roadies, the amount of time and energy expended on a rehearsals was enormous. Often we would not get home until 2.00am having started eight hours earlier, and then have to get up four hours later to do the day job, that funded the music one, as the gigs never did.
Eventually I found a farm in Amersham, South Buckinghamshire that was owned by the drummer from The Pedlars, a well known trio of hit makers during the 196o’s. The farm’s barns had been converted into sounded proofed rehearsal studios and were used by some of the top bands at the time, such as: Yes, Thin Lizzy and Genesis. The Barnyard Studios, as they were called, were a dream. They cost more to hire but were worth it because they were so relaxing and hassle free. The only inconvenience was that the toilets (pun intended) were in the main house, so there was a constant stream of musicians (pun intended) coming and going to use the facilities. On one particular occassion I bumped into Phil Collins. I introduced myself and he made a joke along the lines that he better not shake my hand as he had just come out of the toilet. I never saw him or Genesis there again as they went on to become a ‘supergroup’ shortly afterwards.
My early musical influences, apart from Deep Purple, and the big three great classical composers: Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, include the more melodic prog. rock bands from the late sixties and early seventies like Yes, SuperTramp, Pink Floyd, Camel, Barclay James Harvest, Genesis, Gino Vanelli, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and more recently guitarist Joe Satriani. I also like melodic blues written and performed by artists such as the late, great Gary Moore and any type of music that brings light into peoples lives including choral, dance and some styles of country music. The Josh Groban version of Bach’s Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring is one of my favourite pieces as is Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major. I am also a big fan of Whitney Houston whose versions of, I Will Always Love You and The Greatest of Love of All are, in my view, simply sublime.
But at the end of the day the ‘Music of the Spheres’, the classical music sung and performed by the angels in heaven is where my heart is. And the baroque style, which you can hear in the instrumental section of Funny Money is the style of classical music I enjoy listening to most.
When I listen to music now I want to be lifted up, to be inspired and taken to a higher plain, thus my whole approach and tastes in music have changed towards this end.