Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Belstaff Bouncers

Whilst writing about 'Egged tales', I realised that I had never written anything about 'The Belstaff Bouncers', which were - how can I put this? - a large part of my life during 1975-7.

The beginning was in September 1975, when my friend Simon the drum and I were asked to perform some songs at the party to be held for the Habonim members who were emigrating from Britain to Israel. Quite why we chose to write songs about motorcyclists is something that eludes my memory, but for us, it was a hot topic. There were several motorcyclists in our ranks - I had just joined the club - and so it must have seemed sensible at the time. We sat down one afternoon and in short order wrote the lyrics to four songs: the songs were old rock'n'roll ones (e.g. "Breaking up is hard to do", "That'll be the day") but the lyrics were new. We performed them with Simon singing into one of my microphones (connected to my tape deck, connected to an amplifier) and me accompanying him on acoustic guitar with the other microphone placed inside the sound hole. A Belstaff jacket is a heavy duty leather jacket intended for motorcyclists which keeps its wearer dry; I don't remember where the 'Bouncers' part of our name came from.

We must have been well-received, for the next thing that I remember was discussing with Simon, along with Jeremy the bass, the possibility of forming a group. Simon said that he played drums, which surprised both Jeremy and I. When we found someone selling a drum kit, we gave Simon an 'audition', and believe it or not, he really could play. At the time I was working at Schweppes and so had a large amount of spare money; I paid for half of the drum kit. At the same time, I bought myself an electric guitar and an amplifier.

As all three of us were living at the time in the communal house in Hampstead, we used to rehearse in a shed at the bottom of the garden - far enough from houses in order to make a racket without disturbing anyone. I have a suspicion that we may have played at winter camp, 1975; we definitely played at a party in Southgate for Valentine's Day, 1976. This was termed "The Valentine Day's massacre", and we played some horror songs (anyone remember 'The monster mash"?). We continued practising throughout 1976, but in September of that year, Simon and Jeremy moved to a separate house in Ilford (?) and the days when we could go to the hut and rehearse (or just bash about) were over.

I'm certain that we played at winter camp in 1976 and at the Purim fancy-dress party on March 1, 1977 (I remember the date as this was St David's day, the patron saint of Wales, and so I dressed as a Welsh rugby player with a leek sticking out of my pocket). This was an excellent gig: I remember feeling that I couldn't play as loud as I wanted (and we were very loud).

Jeremy was due to emigrate in September 1977, so we decided to 'go out with a bang' before he left by making a professional recording. First, we went over the songs which we remembered and chose what would go on our record and in what order. We rehearsed them thoroughly, and during these 'sessions', Jeremy came up with a new, original song entitled "(It's your) Bike I like". As we didn't have much time to rehearse this, I created a minimal arrangement of strummed guitar and drums. Then, on the Saturday of this musical week, Jeremy and I went to the music shops around Charing Cross Road in order to buy him a 'proper' bass guitar - until now, he had been playing a no-name copy with a dreadful sound; he bought a Yamaha bass with a lovely sound.

On the Sunday (18 September 1977), we reconvened, along with Jeremy's brand new wife Carol and another friend/singer, Lorraine, in what might be euphemistically termed 'a studio' in Hendon. We had been looking for a studio in which we could record our modest songs, but not having much of a budget, we had to settle for something simple. We found this man (Mr Warren) who advertised a studio whose price was within our reach; it turned out that it was the front room of a normal semi-detached house, although it was a large room and there was a little control booth at the end.

We set up the instruments and finally we had proper microphones: one for Simon, one for me and one for the girls. There was also a mike on my trusted amplifier and presumably an overhead on the drums (or maybe not - there was enough spillage to obviate the need for the drums to be miked). As we were recording direct to mono with no overdubbing, we decided that we would play each song as many times as needed until we were satisfied. We all had headphones so that we could hear a balanced mix, but it took some time to get used to this and so the opening song required three takes. After listening to the first take of one song, someone remarked that the best thing about it was the count-in; it was me who counted the song in, and I broke down laughing when we tried the next take. So we had a 'cinema verite' moment with me counting, corpsing, Mr Warren breaking in on the control mike, and then me counting in again.

One of the songs was called "Takeaway", a parody of the Beach Boys' "Breakaway". I had suggested to Simon that instead of writing the lyrics together, he would write the first verse and I would write the second. This worked well; also, the writer would sing the words that he had written (i.e. Simon the first verse, me the second). For some reason, it was decided that I would sing both verses, something which we had not rehearsed before, so my singing was definitely rough on the first verse (something which these days can easily be corrected). As all of our songs were based on our memories of the original songs, our version is somewhat different (although the verse and chorus are recognisably the same as the original). Don't forget that in 1975-7, the only copyable medium that we had was cassettes: someone had to have the record which could be taped. So we worked from memories and improvised what we didn't know.

The finale was our version of "The sun ain't gonna shine any more" (The Walker Brothers), which in our warped version became "My bike ain't gonna run anymore". Mr Warren really enjoyed this and kept adding more and more reverb to my backing vocal once he heard what I was singing. This required only one take! So we were done: about three and a half hours of recording and listening from which we had 24 minutes of unforgettable music. Mr Warren also offered duplication services, so we ordered two or three acetate records (!) as well as forty cassette copies for sale. We sold all the cassettes to friends quickly and so recuperated our recording costs.

Probably a week later, we played a truncated set (certainly "My bike ain't gonna run anymore") at Jeremy and Carol's emigration party, which completed the circle started at a similar event only two years beforehand.

This is where The Belstaff Bouncers' story should end, but there is a continuation. About ten years ago, I transferred the recording - probably from the cassette and not the acetate - to my computer; at the same time, I digitised some of our rehearsal recordings along with one disastrous live recording. We had set up to record a performance at a party when suddenly the segue from our opening song into "Takeaway" was interrupted by someone shouting "Simon, Simon, it's smoking" - my amplifier's fuse had blown and apparently smoke was coming from it. We closed down very quickly! Listening to the recording now, I am surprised by how good it sounds - Simon's drumming was really good, something which passed us by at the time.

I often wonder what I would have done had we had better recording facilities - I would leave almost everything the same (although of course, the recording would have been in stereo) but I would have added an overdubbed rhythm guitar in a few places. But hey! this was 1977! The summer of punk! We could have appeared as a punk group, had we been prepared to put up with the spitting. After all, we were the same age as the Sex Pistols, the Clash, etc. On the other hand, I don't think that they would have been too enamoured of three Jewish university students; as my review of the record started, "The question is not whether white men can play the blues, but rather, can white Jewish ex-public schoolboys play the blues?".

To the best of my knowledge, below appears the only extant photograph of the Belstaff Bouncers (from the Purim Party, 5/3/77). The picture is effectively glued into a photo album so I was unable to remove it without damaging it. So a picture of the black and white picture will have to suffice; the warping is not in the original. I'm on the right, in case you couldn't guess.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Egged tales (more stories from 40 years ago)

1978 marked the golden jubilee of British Habonim (the movement spread to other countries a few years later); it was decided that we would mark the event by putting on what might be termed a 'musical' which was named 'Egged tales' (on the basis of the Canterbury tales; Egged is the name of the national Israeli bus company). I wasn't involved at the very beginning, but I was roped in shortly afterwards (either late December 1977 or early January 1978) to be the musical director of the show. One movement worker had a strong background in theatre, the wife of our shali'ach (an Israeli family sent to Britain to help run the movement) had a similar background, and there was one young man who thought that he was Danny Kaye.

In true Habonim style, there wasn't a written script initially; the musical would be built on scenes developed through group improvisation (but then formalised) and songs. As usual, the songs were adaptions of existing songs with new lyrics. For obvious reasons, we (I became part of the production company) were limited to using members from London; a message went out inviting anybody who was interested to attend rehearsals. I developed a group consisting of two brothers from Ilford (guitar and bass), my friend Debby (clarinet - I didn't know that she could play!), one youngster on violin, an even younger youngster on percussion (I bought him a pair of bongoes) and myself, playing mandolin and lead guitar.

Throughout January, my group worked on the songs which we had to play; I wrote what might be termed an overture, whose tune was based on the Israeli national anthem, but this got discarded at some stage. The opening song was  'The Deadwood Stage' from the film  'Calamity Jane'; whilst I might have been vaguely familiar with the tune beforehand, I think that I learnt it - and taught the others - from a cassette version prepared by the Danny Kaye wannabe. I don't remember now what the other songs were, although the finale was a song from 'Joseph and the technicolour dream'.

In February I had to curtail my involvement in the musical in order to devote myself to my university studies: we had final exams at the end of the month. When I came back, I found my group of musicians well rehearsed.

We took the show 'on the road' during the Spring holidays. After a final rehearsal in London one Saturday afternoon, we took the scenery apart and loaded everything into a truck which headed north to Manchester. A coach was hired to take all the youngsters, but I travelled separately in a car with my fellow producers. As far as I remember, we appeared at the Free Trade Hall (or maybe the Lesser Free Trade Hall) in Manchester the following day. I confess that I remember nothing of the performance. After the show, all the youngsters stayed overnight with their counterparts in Manchester, whereas we stayed in the Habonim building at Upper Park Road, Salford: a very familiar location for me.

The next day, we made the short trip to Leeds, where we set up in some hall (this might have been the Habonim building there but I don't think so) and performed again. Once more, the youngsters stayed overnight before setting out for Glasgow, whereas my cohorts helped pack everything then sent out immediately for Glasgow. I remember falling asleep quite quickly then waking up somewhere north of the border. When we arrived at the hall, I set up the audio equipment half asleep; I remember being pleased that we had an eight track mixer but that's all I remember. The show went in a flash - although nominally awake, I was asleep. It's like when we used to go on night walks at summer camp - I would walk and have no memories of a few hours. Fortunately after this show, we had a few days rest.

One week after the Manchester show, we reconvened at the Savile Theatre in London's West End - or at least I think that it was the Savile. The Wiki states that the theatre was turned into a cinema in 1970 which makes me wonder where we did appear. I did a little busking in the street in the afternoon, not that anyone stopped and gave me money. As usual, I remember nothing of the performance, but two things have stuck in my mind from that day. At some stage, the cable from my electric guitar to its amplifier caused problems, so I had to play one extra song on mandolin; I think that during the interval we got the guitar/amplifier working again for I certainly played 'stinging lead guitar' during the finale. After the show, I met my old girlfriend G, this being our final meeting. It wasn't too much of a surprise as her youngest sister appeared in the cast but always the fool, all I could talk about was the problem with the guitar and not about anything about her (like how she was, what she was doing, etc).

I had recorded one show with two microphones and my trusty stereo cassette deck; I invited the man who ran a home studio in Hendon to record the London show, but I had left it too late and he was busy that day (my friends and I recorded 'an album' in his 'studio' (his front room!) in 1977, but that's another story which seems not to have been written about here). So I tried again to get a good recording from the London show. Eventually with the help of Mr Warren (the Hendon man), we were able to patch together an audio souvenir of the show. I have a cassette somewhere, but haven't heard it for years; I don't have the means to listen to it now, even if I wanted to. 

I have just dug out the cassette from its hiding place; the 'liner notes' say that the show was recorded in Birmingham, 9 April 1978. Birmingham? It seems that I had the itinerary wrong - we must have appeared first in Birmingham on Sunday, then travelled further north to Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow. Maybe we didn't appear in Manchester? My mind is a blank and these memories aren't likely to return. 

A year later, some of the senior participants would relive the show when we took part in the celebrations for 50 years of Habonim in Israel. Although I vaguely remember the atmosphere, the only real memory I have of this event was meeting the then president of Israel, Yizhak Navon.

[Edit from a year later] I fairly certain that the order of shows was Manchester, Leeds, Glasgow, home for a few days, Birmingham, a week off, London.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Nothing much to write about

In case anyone is wondering why it's been nearly three weeks since I last posted anything here: I'm fine, I simply don't have anything which I particularly want to write about. I've been fairly busy at work and I've also been fairly busy consulting, so outside of these two activities, there hasn't been much spare time.

I have discovered a series of police procedurals set in Venice 'starring' Commisario Brunetti; having spent a bit more time in Venice than the average day tourist, I can remember several of the places mentioned and have an idea about the geography. It's like DCI Banks has moved to Venice, although at the moment I don't think that author Donna Leon is as good as Peter Robinson, who writes the Banks books. The first four books which I have read are competent but not more so; to be honest, the early Banks books weren't that good either. One noticeable difference is that in the Banks books, normally two detectives interview people (so that there is corroboration) whereas the Brunetti books almost always have Brunetti solo. Maybe the series will improve - there are 23 books to get through.