The Early Years

Settling back in the UK presented a number of challenges, but foremost among them was finding people who shared my passion for flamenco. Triguito had given me the details of one of his former pupils living in London, a guy by the name of Maurice Dickinson (‘Mauricio’), who has been a well-known figure in the London flamenco scene for many years.   I got to visit Maurice at his home in Highgate one day.  We played our guitars, and shared our experiences of Madrid ... and Triguito.  It was a very worthwhile encounter, and my first opportunity to discuss flamenco in English!

A year or so later I was living back in Cheltenham, where I was born and grew up. By this time my playing had progressed to the point where I had learned the basics of all the important flamenco forms, and could play reasonable solos in half a dozen or so.  I had also managed to get hold of a great-sounding 1968 Ramirez guitar that I had bought from well-known London dealer Ivor Mairants.This was noticeably superior to the 1947 Esteso that I brought back from Madrid.  My mission then was to track down any local flamenco enthusiasts.  This quest pretty much drew a blank, so I just got on with learning and practising whenever I could. By this time my mother had developed quite a liking for the flamenco stuff, although there were times when she had to shout up the stairs to get me to knock it off for a while.   The problem is:  flamenco guitars don’t come with a volume knob!

 

I soon got to know a handful of local guitarists but, not surprisingly, they were all electric players into blues-based rock stuff.  Best among them was a guy called Lyn Oakey.  Lyn, as it happens, was somebody I remembered from my junior school days.  He was in the same class as one of my sisters.  His playing was fluent, versatile and quite progressive.  He didn’t have a day job, as such.  He’d more or less gone straight from college into music, playing with a Cheltenham band called ‘9.30 Fly’, who had released an album (quite an achievement at the time) and done a bit of touring.

 

Lyn lived with his parents about half a mile from me.  We used to get together and have a sort of ‘jam session’, me on the Ramirez and him on his 1962 Fender Strat!  Nothing fantastic .. just me playing a few chords while he did some tasty lead stuff.  Being very eclectic by nature, he found my  flamenco playing quite intriguing.  Needless to say, I was also pretty fascinated by what he could do.  He seemed to know all the standard blues licks.  It’s perhaps worth mentioning that, although I was a flamenco student,  I was also a big fan of Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and all the Blues guys.  Other favourites included Santana and Jeff Beck.

 

Looking back, it was inevitable that I would sooner or later become a rock/blues guitarist as well as a flamenco player.  Lyn was the first musician I ever tried to play along with, and the idea of being in some kind of band (as opposed to the solitude of solo flamenco) did appeal to me.  Once I’d got the feel of an E9 chord (a requisite of blues/funk music), the time seemed right to start exploring the world of steel strings and plectrums! Lyn lent me what appeared to be a home-made solid guitar that he had been using for slide practice.  It was so basic that it came with its own lead attached directly to the pick-up!  No knobs ... nothing.  It was the complete opposite to a Spanish guitar, but it had a straight neck and was good enough to get me started.  But what was I going to play?

Lyn Oakey

Well, anybody who can remember the 1970’s will know that the singles charts in the UK were dominated by frivolous pop fodder such as Slade, Sweet, Donny Osmond and the Bay City Rollers. The album charts, on the other hand, were the domain of Zep, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, King Crimson,  Emerson Lake and Palmer, Genesis and so on.  But by the mid 70’s, I myself was more attracted to stuff from the States.  It was a time when powerful new styles of music had emerged .... the result of distinct genres such as Jazz, Blues, Soul and (now) Rock being mixed together in various combinations.

 

Bands such as Mahavishnu Orchestra, Tower of Power, Steely Dan and that great rock genius Frank Zappa heralded this new dawn, bringing with them a whole new level of inventiveness, musicianship and energy to the world of contemporary music.  Guys like these (and many others) were truly awe-inspiring back then, and raised the bar to a level that sophisticated music lovers now take for granted.  It was definitely an exciting time..... and for guitarists in particular.  The period from 1965 to 1975 was undoubtedly the most creative and progressive decade in popular music history, and I feel lucky to have experienced it first-hand.

 

However, this rapidly expanding musical universe offered a bewildering choice for any budding musicians. But luckily for me, there was a common origin to most of it, and that was the Blues.  So it was the natural starting point for learning electric guitar.  Besides, I happened to like Blues ... a lot!  Its earthy emotional nature bears much in common with Flamenco, even though the two styles are totally different technically and harmonically.   One big thing in my favour was that I had already listened to enough Blues by this time to be familiar with the standard 12-bar chorus. 

 

Thanks to Lyn showing me the basics, I was soon picking up ideas from the likes of Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mike Bloomfield.  Lyn even suggested that I could try to develop a sort of hybrid flamenco/rock style of playing, but I was never tempted by that idea.  My advice to anyone wishing to play electric Blues is to start by learning how to bend notes properly (i.e. in tune) and then work on developing a good vibrato technique.  Without mastering these two vital elements it will always sound (at best) amateurish ..... and (at worst) awful.

 

My first electric guitar was a newish right-handed Fender Strat that my Dad brought over from Seattle.  I soon had it upside down (like Jimi), and got down to business.  Some months later, I was able to swap it for a tasty left-handed 1971 Telecaster and still keep the Strat’s proper Fender case...... an amazing stroke of luck.  The Tele’ was blonde finish with maple neck but had a lurid green scratchplate, which I immediately sprayed black.  Somehow, I’ve always been fussy about  appearance when it comes to guitars ..... like 99% of other players, probably.  It seems to be very much a guitarist ‘thing’.  We tend to choose instruments as much by look as any other factor, quite often, and then we agonise about messing them about to get an even better look .. or sound .. or whatever.   I don’t suppose any keyboard players or brass players suffer these anxieties.  As I said, it’s a guitarist thing .... we just can’t help it!

Around this time, I met (through Lyn) a fair-haired teenage kid by the name of Jimmy Scott. Jimmy was originally from Hereford but seemed to spend a lot of time hanging out with the Cheltenham music scene.  He was helping out as a ‘roadie’ for the odd gigs that 9.30 Fly were still doing .... even though they had officially split up by this time.  Jimmy was an outgoing, mischievous sort of character who had a definite flair for the guitar.  Lyn also took me to meet a classically-trained pianist he knew, called Robert Godfrey.  It turned out there was a connection between the three of them involving a musical project that Robert was working on.  He had heard Jimmy’s playing, and fancied using him on an up-and-coming album that was nearing completion.

 

This could have been a valuable opportunity for Jimmy but, as luck would have it, he managed to suffer a fall which damaged his right arm and shoulder shortly before the recording session was due.  Lyn had to come to Robert’s rescue, and ended up recording the guitar parts for his album, titled ‘Fall of Hyperion’, which was released a few months later.  In spite of Lyn’s involvement, Jimmy Scott was credited as guitarist on the album cover.  This was simply because the artwork, which was typically elaborate and psychedelic-looking, had already been finalised and it was too late to make any changes.  I don’t remember ever bumping into Jimmy after this, but I guess his arm must have healed up OK because, a few years later,  he was enjoying fame and fortune as ‘James Honeyman Scott’ ....... playing with a successful new band called The Pretenders!

 

I only met Robert Godfrey a few times.  He was only staying in Cheltenham whilst he put the finishing touches to his album.  On first meeting him, he offered to make a recording of my flamenco playing.  This I was very happy to accept! I practised for about a week beforehand, and ended up recording five tracks, each done in one take. He used two microphones plugged into a 4-track Revox tape machine.  The result was a very high-quality recording that captured the sweet, earthy sound of the Ramirez very well.  Afterwards, Robert made encouraging comments about my playing,  which I thought was very nice of him. I still have the original tape, which still sounds clear decades after it was made.

 

Robert’s album (Fall of Hyperion), which is an exuberant extravaganza of cascading keyboards and thunderous orchestral tympanis, was not a commercial success but he was probably motivated more by artistic ideals than trying to make oodles of cash.  Not long after, he formed the well-known classical-styled progressive-rock band called ‘The Enid’, which generated quite a cult following during the 1980’s and ‘90’s.  They still perform today though, sadly, Robert has had to hand over the reins and retire due to his dementia. There are various words that might describe their music, which was (and no doubt still is) lavish, dynamic, eccentric, pompous, melodramatic and, above all, quintessentially British!

Cosy provincial towns such as Cheltenham are rarely where stardom beckons, but Lyn Oakey nevertheless stuck around long enough to see me play in my first band, called ‘Garbo’.  My rock/blues playing was coming on quite well by this time, but my place in the band was probably as much down to me knowing a guy who lived in a large Regency house, which had a basement ideal for rehearsing!  That and the fact that I was the first guitarist in Cheltenham to have a Maestro phase-shifter pedal, which I had brought back from a summer stay in Seattle.  This handy piece of kit was pretty far out at the time, and had been used by Carlos Santana as well as John McLaughlin of Mahavishnu Orchestra fame.

 

Garbo lasted for about a year.  Our first gig had been at Cheltenham Tech. College supporting a London R&B/funk band called Gonzalez.  Gonzalez, with their brass section, keyboards, percussion and soulful lead vocalist Lenny Zakatek, were like Britain’s answer to Tower of Power, with more than a hint of Santana in there too.  The only other British band I can think of that have done similar stuff are Jamiroquai, but Gonzalez were much much better, with greater depth and a more authentic funk 'feel'.  It’s just a shame they never enjoyed  the same commercial success .... but that’s the music industry for ya! ‘Making it’ is ultimately all about luck .... and timing. 

 

Lyn eventually did leave Cheltenham, relocating to Manchester, where he enjoyed spells with cult rock-poet John Cooper Clarke, soul band Sweet Sensation (who had a ‘70’s chart hit with the song ‘Sad Sweet Dreamer’) and even did a six-month European tour as guitarist for Alvin Stardust!  Later, during the 80's, he worked with vocalist Nico, of Velvet Underground fame, and did a number of European tours with American R&B poet Gil Scott-Heron. I recently rediscovered Lyn, still living in Manchester, and we've spent hours on the phone catching up on things!

Most of the other musicians I knew in Cheltenham melted away over time, presumably into the undergrowth of family life and regular employment.  But there was one who managed to escape this fate and eventually attain stardom.  During my last year in Cheltenham (before moving to South Wales), I was living in a tiny bedsit in the town centre.  One of my routines was to cycle up to the Art College and pretend to be a student so I could take advantage of their canteen to get cheap and tasty meals.  During my visits I got to know a singer/guitarist called Malcolm Tate, who had a local band on the go, the name of which I can’t remember.  I met them all one day at one of their gigs, and the lead guitarist was a guy called Wurzel, who later spent many years playing with heavy rockers Motorhead.

 

Wurzel had the stereotypical look of a ‘70’s rock guitarist .... slim, not very tall, with an unruly mop of long dark hair and seemingly always clad in black. He even played a black Les Paul copy.  All Les Paul copies seemed to be black in those days, for some reason.  Anyway, he and I hit it off straight away.  He always struck me as a very easy-going, good-natured sort of guy, devoid of any hint of ego or pretence.  My abiding memory of him is following the band out into the Cotswolds to play for an upper-crust bash at a country pile belonging to a well-known business tycoon.  I wasn’t a band member, as such.  I just went along for the ride.... and to have a jam with Wurzel.  It was near the middle of summer, and there was every reason to think that this ‘do’ could turn into a night to remember.

Wurzel

Well, it was memorable .... for sure, but not for reasons I had imagined.  On arrival, people looked at us as if we were from Mars.  And instead of setting up in or near the mansion house, we found ourselves stuck out in an adjoining field, well away from the action.  A long extension lead provided power for the amps etc.  This all seemed very strange, to say the least. It was getting dark by this time and the only light was from near the building some distance behind us.  I can vividly remember our grassy ‘stage’ facing gently downhill into a hollow with the trees and rolling hills beyond .... it was almost surreal.  Anyway, Malcolm, Wurzel and the band eventually kicked off, playing to the birds, foxes, rabbits and any other wildlife in the vicinity. The young party-goers  (a different form of wildlife) hardly came near us all night. They were too busy creating scenes of wanton drunkenness and debauchery back at the 'house'.  Shame we weren't invited to join in!

 

When the playing stopped, Wurzel’s first words were “I’m busting for a piss”, as he unstrapped his guitar and scurried off into the darkness. All that was left for us was to pack away the gear and make the most of what the occasion still had to offer, which wasn't much. I vaguely remember Malcolm having to search among the licentious rabble of young toffs and toffettes for someone to pay the band. My only other memory is of dawn breaking as I drove back to Cheltenham in my trusty (and rusty) old Mini. 

 

I’m not sure whether I ever saw Wurzel after that.  Luckily, Malcolm had recorded the gig on a stereo tape-machine of some sort.  He ended up doing me a copy, which gave me something to hang onto.  It comprises four of the regular band songs and two spontaneous instrumental jams with just me, Wurzel and the bass and drums.  The first is a softish Santana-type creation with the Maestro phaser sounding tasty,  and the second is a lengthy workout of the Blues classic ‘Rock Me Baby’, with the emphasis more on wah-wah pedals ...  a pseudo-Hendrix kind of thing.

 

It was fascinating listening to this tape recently for the first time in almost 30 years. The rhythm section, although not particularly ‘tight’,  show a commendable instinct for light and shade that is essential for good jamming. This gave the music a sense of shape and direction that allowed me and Wurzel to stretch out, swapping solos and trading licks with an intuitive empathy that I’ve rarely experienced since.  It was a lot of fun, audience or no audience. 

 

Wurzel (real name Michael Burston) was born and raised in Cheltenham, like myself.  I often wondered why I hadn’t come across him sooner than I did, but it turns out he had been in the Army for a few years before I met him, and that was where he got his nickname.  It was 1984 when he made that crucial phone call to Lemmy of Motorhead which led to him becoming a justifiably renowned figure in Heavy Rock, undoubtedly one of Cheltenham's famous exports (along with Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones .... mustn’t forget him!)

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