Thursday, 12 November 2015

Tales From the Tour Bus: Rock 'n' Roll on the Road (BBC4 Fri 9th October 2015 Rpt)

On Friday evening I watched a repeat of a documentary called Tales From the Tour Bus: Rock ‘n’ Roll on the Road, presented by Rick Wakeman. He introduces the programme with, ‘Welcome to the golden age of British touring, when rock and pop bands roamed the land in a world before mobile phones, guide books and even motorways, a world that never seemed ready for them. From the fifties to the eighties, these musical pirates could be glimpsed travelling the length and breadth of the country changing the musical landscape as they went. Playing wherever they could get a gig. Risking everything for us. This is the story of their journey.’

The keyboardist looked odd in his grey suit, white shoes and no tie, but was as funny as always. Tales From the Tour Bus was narrated chronologically starting with the earliest tours of the UK which were by American musicians. In 1957, the first was Bill Haley who toured the country by British Rail. He was followed by Buddy Holly in 1958 and Gene Vincent & Eddie Cochran in 1960. Joining the latter duo were Marty Wilde and the Wildcats with drummer Brian Bennett, who in an interview describes how he carried his own kit because there were no road managers. They travelled third class on British Rail, while Vincent & Cochran enjoyed first class. Marty Wilde remembered how Americans did not swear much, although the British swore all the time. In the early days of touring, rock ‘n’ roll was ‘shoehorned’ into traditional variety shows with novelty acts. Gary Brooker, of The Paramounts and Procol Harum, felt insulted that they were asked to back Mrs Mills, and he expressed his disgust. She later came to him and apologised, so he felt guilty.

Early in the programme, Rick Wakeman introduced his 1984 Dodge Ram van, bought for the Yes Union Tour in 1990, because it was less hastle than waiting at airports. He put forward the view that if you had a van and were not a musician, you would probably be invited to join a band. According to Ali McKenzie of The Birds, the van was your home, where you ate sandwiches prepared by your mum. The Birds had a ‘piss hole’ in the bottom of the van, as there was no time to stop. Simon Nicol, of Fairport Convention, also claimed bands tried to co-ordinate their bladders, in order to save valuable time. A particularly funny section is where Rick Wakeman walks around his van, as if he has just had a wee, and shakes his leg. Bob Hope would have been proud.

Brooker recalled the variety of venues, saying that the Pontypridd Nylon Spinners Club was one of the best nights they ever had, while Whitehaven, near a nuclear power station, was grim. The Whitehaven girls liked them, the boyfriends did not. Phil May of the Pretty Things described how their roadie defended them from angry boyfriends, with a shotgun which he kept in the back of the van. Girls carried scissors for cutting lengths of hair and pieces of clothes for souvenirs, while boyfriends wanted to beat them up. In 1961, The Beatles‘ roadie, Neil Aspinall, bought a van for £80 and charged them five bob (5s or 25p) for every journey.

Rick Wakeman tells us quite abruptly that, ‘Some of the working men’s clubs were shit holes and that was upgrading them.’

By 1967, with imported American hippydom, everything had changed. A full-scale rock tour was organised featuring The Nice, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Move and Pink Floyd. It was supposed to be a two-and-a-half hour show, but the club would switch off the power supply half way through Jimi Hendrix’s set. There were no women on the tour of 67, although Sandy Shaw was backed by the Paramounts and travelled in the van with the band. In 1968, Sandy Denny was travelling in the Fairport van, which was no problem, but pubs would not serve her because of their ‘men only bars’. Sonja Kristina of Curved Air, shown in both seventies footage and a recent interview, said everyone slept together in the back of the tour coach. It was like a relationship without sex. Road accidents, involving touring bands, did not make the press until 1969, when Fairport Convention crashed and drummer Martin Lamble was killed.

Motorways opened in 1959, with the M1, and the Blue Boar Service Station at Watford Gap was unveiled on the same day. Carl Palmer, then with Chris Farlowe, remembered how groups would meet at the Blue Boar and he saw the Tremeloes and the Searchers. Prior to this he recalled truck stops with 10 beds in a room and unwashed sheets. Brian James, who came later in the seventies with The Damned, said the B&B landladies took pity on him and wanted to feed him.

Kim McAuliff of late-seventies all-girl band, Girlschool(1), remembered getting changed for gigs, in toilets with wee on the floor. She said they formed a girl band because men did not want women on the tour bus. Girlschool, like other groups, slept on top of the gear in the back of the van. Drummer Denise Dufore had pent up energy and they had to stop to let her run around, although she could sleep upright with a cloth over her head like a budgie. Denise also had smelly socks and shoes, so they were periodically thrown out of the van window. Motorhead invited them on one of their tours, whereas many bands would charge the support act to join them.

More equipment in the seventies meant a road crew. Peter Hook of Joy Division and Blue Mondays followed Queen in recording an album in Wales and retold a funny story from the engineers about Mercury and co. Apparently, Queen’s roadies had turned up with sports cars and girls, so the engineers asked if they were the band. They said they were the road crew, but had their own crew to set up the equipment and added, ‘But, don’t tell the band.’ Another of Hook’s stories involved a roadie being sent for a supply of beer, opening the bus door and finding they were already heading down the motorway at 70mph!

Peter Dougal Butler, assistant to Keith Moon, recalled how the drummer attempted to phone hotel room services for a sandwich in the middle of the night, but they did not answer. He threw a TV out of widow. The hotel phoned him and asked if he had just thrown a TV out of the window. He said, ‘Yes,’ and next time would they answer the phone.

Rat Scabies, also of The Damned, said tour maps looked like pentagrams. Steve Harley of Cockney Rebel added that they could play Portsmouth, Glasgow and possibly Southampton on three consecutive nights. Another of Scabies’ observations was that bands had a two-year career on average, roadies got forty years. Wilko Johnson and Norman Watt-Roy‘s experiences did not have a road crew; they had a lock-up, would drive the van, picked each other up in the van, set up the equipment, played and then did everything in reverse night after night. Wilko said, ‘I think I slept twice in the seventies!’

Rick Wakeman provided an anecdote on how newly established rock venues were created in the seventies for bands, like Wilko’s Dr Feelgood, who were too big for pubs, but not big enough for stadiums, ‘There were a few great venues which you aspired to play in when you were in a band in the early seventies. One was Friars in Aylesbury, the other was Boston Gliderdrome. The Gliderdome was absolutely fantastic, they oould squeeze 1200 people in there. You felt you had made it when you played clubs like Boston Gliderdrome.’

Tours came full circle in 1978 when Dave Robinson took his bands on the Stiff Tour, on a British Rail train. They hired the train with Pulman carriages and put a stiff banner on the side.

On closing, Brian James and Rat Scabies told of how a tour starts out as band versus the world and ends with niggles being magnified out of proportion. Although The Damned toured with Marc Bolan and T.Rex and found him keen to keep fit, ‘Running around the services in his little green tracksuit,’ and open to the extent he would discuss anything. Suzi Quatro lamented that touring was a lonely existence. Paul Humphreys of OMD even picked up the phone in his own house to call room service, then realised it was his house and not a hotel. Steve Harley said, ‘You have to do it, there is no other way.’ Marty Wilde also said candidly, ‘You have got to be loved by everyone if you can.’ The film ended with a little comedy sketch featuring Rick shut out of the Gliderdrome and unable to find his van.

Tales From the Tour Bus: Rock ‘n’ Roll on the Road is an excellent documentary and quite funny too. I have seen it three times and recommend it wholeheartedly to all rock fans. BBC4 usually show good quality music documentaries on Friday nights and they are well worth keeping an eye on the TV listings.

(1) RIP Girlschool lead guitarist and singer Kelly Johnson, who died of cancer in 2007.


No comments:

Post a Comment