ROY CARR in Wandsworth with another of those up’n coming pub bands.
“‘ERE,” CROAKS the trustee con as he sets down the tray of tea. “We ‘ad a drag show in ‘ere the other week — and Christ, the cons didn’t ‘arf give ’em an ‘ard time”. Accepting a light for his almost matchstick-thin roll-up, he continues, “but I’ll tell yer, them pooftahs didn’t ‘arf come back with some lip and put the cons in their place.”
We’re scattered around the spit ‘n’ polish ante-room to the church-cum-recreational hall in Wandsworth Maximum Security Prison. It’s Sunday lunch-time and in a few minutes the inmates of three cell blocks will be herded in for their weekly entertainment. As it transpires, aside from film shows, rock groups appear to be the most welcome alternatives to boredom and mailbag stitching in this South London slammer. This afternoon. Ace — a Muswell Hillbilly band currently woodshedding on the pub circuit — are doing the honours.
Half-hearted jokes about cons and screws and jailbreaks are nervously exchanged in hushed voices as the roadies set up the equipment. DJ Andy Dunkley belts on a large bottle of orange juice and moans on about how he’s not been to bed as Guitarists Phi Harris and Bam King limber up on the 12-bar. The slightest noise sounds too loud and the presence of poker-faced wardens doesn’t help. You can almost feel the tension in the cool, still, antiseptic air. One is almost too frightened to flick fag ash or talk out loud — everyone except Supercon who churns out stories of prison life.
“We also ‘ad one of them disco shows down ‘ere with a couple of go-go birds who wanted to go on topless. They didn’t — but if they ‘ad there’d ‘ave been a bleedin’ riot. As it is, they ‘ardly wore anything which was bleedin’ ‘ard on those long-serving cons. It don’t bovver me. I’ll be out in a few weeks.”
Suddenly, the Reverend Percy Ashford — prison chaplain and entertainments organiser appears. He’s an extremely jovial gentleman with an open face and a nice line in non-Biblical jive. By no means could he be misconstrued as a misguided do-gooder. The Rev is alright.
While the cons file in to the strains of Dunkley’s discs, Harris, who acts as spokesman for the Ace — formed in April and by far the youngest band on the highly publicised pub/rock circuit — feels that it is a “tag” that might eventually backfire.
“Yer know”, he begins, “if a band doesn’t get beyond working these places they’ll get branded and never make anything of themselves.” This is an opinion shared by the rest of the band: Paul Carrack (keyboards), Terry (Tex) Comer (bs) and Steve Witherington (dms).
“At the moment,” Harris elaborates, “people are beginning to get a misconception about bands like us. They think that all pub bands are exactly the same… just goodtime beery rock ‘n’ roll outfits. Most don’t realise that the bands on this circuit are quite different from each other.
“We’re not like Kilburn & The Highroads and Kilburn ain’t like Ducks Deluxe who aren’t like Clancy — or Bees Make Money. But we all get lumped together.
“Working the pubs,” he emphasises, “can be a platform, because without these places there’s very little chance for new bands like us to get to the public. There’s no money in it, but at least you can cover immediate expenses and build up a following. It’s a great opportunity for bands just starting out.”
Harris draws comparisons with the halcyon days of Klooks Kleek, Eel Pie Island, the Scene, Flamingo Allniters, the Crawdaddy and the Marquee when it was housed in Oxford Street. An obstacle course for emergent raw talent when competition was intense and only the very strong, like the Stones, Yardbirds and Who, survived.
“But there’s an awful danger that it might be short-lived,” insists Harris as he wipes down the neck of his Gibson, pointing out that residents near Kentish Town’s Tally Ho, the Kensington in Holland Park and the Fulham Greyhound have been violently objecting to the noise.
However, that’s not the only deterrent. Agencies and management consortiums are already attempting to muscle in with a view to exposing their contracted artists — be they good, bad or indifferent.
“When a crowd is all juiced up, a band only has to belt out a couple of rock standards to go down much better than they deserve. Also some people say you should treat the public like a bunch of scabs. But I really do believe that the majority of crowds that come to gigs have good taste and therefore should be given much more credit and respect than most people are prepared to afford them.”
With cons seated and in high spirits, Ace motivated their “captive” audience to erupt continually into bouts of foot stompin’ and cheering as they struck a fine balance between they own well-structured originals and well-aimed chestnuts like ‘Hi-Heel Sneakers’ and ‘Lovin’ You Is Sweeter’. At the end of the performance, the band had to decline offers from inmates to follow the band to a gig it was playing the next day.
Rather appropriately, as the cons trucked off to their apartments, Dunkley played the cops ‘n’ robbers confrontation segment from Stevie Wonder’s ‘Living For The City’.
As we went through the security check and stepped once more on to free soil, Harris remarked, “Ace are a new band. We haven’t got an image to keep. At the moment we’re just trying to set our own pace… maybe well just make it.”
© Roy Carr, New Musical Express, 10 November 1973