Early this year, Jet was interviewed for the site by long time band afficionado Ava Rave about his musical awakening and the journey to the formation of The Stranglers. The interview provides a uniquely detailed insight into the formative years of his life, through various musical and business endeavours, to the now legendary off-licence in the centre of Guildford, Surrey:
I’m interested in the beginning, the very beginning. My understanding is that you were in your mid thirties, in business, apparently doing OK, and you suddenly decided to start a band. Can we start by getting to understand how that all came about?
You have to understand that I didn’t just suddenly become interested in music at that point. By my mid thirties I had quite a lot of experience in music. If you really want me to start at the beginning I guess I need to go back to when I was about five, and that’s a very long time ago!
My earliest recollection in music terms, was when one day I found myself going to have piano lessons. I don’t now remember how that came about. If it had been under my own initiative, I think I would have remembered that. There is no residual recollection of having a burning desire to play the piano. I can’t see that the idea came from my parents either, although it must have. The problem there is that my mother was non musical and my father, I think, actually hated music. I don’t think he even understood what the point of it was. I’m pretty much certain that he never experienced any pleasure from music in his entire life.
Anyway, it didn’t last for long, maybe a few months. But I do well remember – in fact it’s permanently carved into my memory – that my teacher used to have an annual concert featuring all of her students. This was something she staged for the benefit of the parents.
I remember being ushered onto a stage in some village hall in front of maybe a hundred or so. I was terrified. I froze, and after a spine chilling pause which seemed like hours, the teacher had to come up to me, to show me where to start. I must have been the youngest performer that year. So it was all very embarrassing. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to bring such humiliation upon themselves. I don’t know if that was actually why it didn’t go on much longer, but it didn’t.
I suppose I ought to own up that I wasn’t very good, but also the domestic environment wasn’t conducive to any kind of study. Music or otherwise. What with my father hating music in the first place and then having to listen to my pathetic efforts on the piano, it’s not so difficult to see how it all fell apart. Plus the romance had long since departed from my parents’ marriage and it had descended into domestic warfare.
So what was the next chapter in the Black career?
Just a few years later, I was around ten, and I was sent to a school on the south coast. I have written about this before so I don’t think I need all the detail. However, I was sent there because I was a chronic Asthmatic in those days. It was thought at that time that the best environment for the condition was clean fresh air.
Holy Cross School stood on top of the cliffs near Broadstairs and from that point of view it was an ideal location for the condition. I was there for around eighteen months in all and loved it.
As a side issue, I quickly became less ill and it wasn’t until many years later that I came to the conclusion that it hadn’t been so much to do with the clean air, but the clean – as in peaceful – environment. Home life was fraught with domestic strife. I believe it is now thought that nervous anxiety can play a part in Asthma
So anyway, one day the class was asked if anyone would like to learn to play the violin. Don’t know why, but I put my hand up. I must have forgotten about the horrors of my piano life! Within a short time, I was the best in the school. I was the one who did the virtuoso spot on parents day. So that was my first success of sorts in a musical context.
How long did the violin thing last?
Not very long actually. It was fine while I was in Broadstairs but pretty much the minute I got home, the Asthma started up again and Dad hated the fiddle noise and I was sent down to the shed at the bottom of the garden to practice. To his credit, he did find a new local teacher for me, but it just fizzled out. There was no enjoyment in it at home and it was a bit like trying to make ice in the middle of a bonfire. You just can’t win. I felt completely unenthused.
So, the violin chapter ends, what was the next step?
I guess it was my ‘discovery’ of music. Obviously, I knew what music was, but there came a day when I discovered foot tapping music. It opened my eyes. I was now only just, a young teenager, and had journeyed to a youth club which was situated outside of what might have been considered my ‘manor’.
Friends had told me about this place where there was a fantastic music scene. I had no idea what they had really meant, but there I was one evening with some pals, in a dingy amenity hut or barn. Just a lot of kids standing around and talking and there was a tiny stage at one end. I believe there was a piano and drum kit. After awhile the main door opened and in walks a man in a boiler suit and a hard hat, or whatever it was that they wore in those days. He was carrying a squarish box in one hand, which I took to be his lunch/sandwich box. Thought he had come to fix the plumbing or something. He went up to the stage, opened his ‘box’ and pulled out a cornet and started playing. Wow! I was amazed. Never seen anything like this before. It was exciting. Soon there were others on the stage behind him, and that was my musical renaissance.
Can you recall what kind of music it was?
I didn’t know right there and then, but it was jazz of course. Jazz in those days was very basic. New Orleans/Dixieland inspired stuff. Easy to like. I used to really love it, but I kinda fell out of love with Jazz when it got serious. I like to hear melody, but eventually it all descended into a avalanche of technical wizardry which still to-day bores the arse off me. I don’t want to know how clever a musician is, I want to hear toooons.
Did you go to that place again?
Oh yes. Many, many times. Each time I took new pals along. All of us just wanted to be part of it. I was now becoming fascinated with the drums. I decided to find out more about them. I used to get all the drum catalogues and stare at them for hours. What I could never work out, was how anybody was ever able to afford to buy them. They seemed to cost a fortune compared with the sums of money that existed in my humble life. It was all very frustrating, I really yearned to get my hands on a drum kit.
But obviously you did at some point?
Yes but it was quite awhile before it happened.
So what was the next stage in the story?
Well my passions for music had now been aroused, and I went on for the next handful of years to explore every opportunity to be involved in music.
Can you remember what you were actually doing in this period of discovery?
I can remember a lot of it, but it was a very long time ago and some things stick in the memory while others get forgotten. But I do recall that I was beginning to spend a lot of time in and around youth clubs all over my part of the world. The centre of which was Ilford, the Gants Hill end of Ilford, rather than Ilford ‘proper’ which was and is a densely populated borough. My end of town was considered by many to be ‘out in the sticks’ but to-day it’s just another part of the sprawling mass which is Greater London.
I actually didn’t see much school throughout those years because of the Asthma thing and education was a real struggle for survival since having lost so much elemental instruction I was completely out of my depth most of the time. The system then didn’t seem to give much of a damn about my educational status. But anyway the upshot of all that was that I had to teach myself pretty much everything I know and so it came as nothing new when it came to trying my hand at another instrument.
There was yet another instrument?
Yes. There was now loads of incentive in my life having found a new love for music. I was now mixing with friends who for the most part were far better educated than I was, and all of them were competent players of one instrument or another.
We began to congregate at the local youth club, and forming a band was a natural consequence of our combined interests. Since there were loads of saxophone, trumpet and trombone players, it was going to be a swing band, and it was. Don’t forget, Rock ‘n’ Roll hadn’t been invented! Even the guitar was almost unknown to many people at the time. Well, I guess everyone knew what a guitar was, but few were actually familiar with it. I think most people would probably have said if asked, that it was some primitive instrument played by the Spanish.
For my part, the only instrument I had been able to get my hands on was a clarinet and so I proceeded to try my hand at that.
One day we were playing away and the drummer was making a bit of a pigs ear of the part. Somehow he just didn’t seem to be getting any inspiration and everyone was getting agitated about it. We kept stopping and starting. At one point, something came over me. Some would say it was divine inspiration, I just got up, went over to the drums, and asked him for the sticks, sat down and said, “play it like this”. Everyone then said I should take up the drums. That, without any doubt at all, was the start of my journey.
It didn’t happen straight away, but eventually the drummer did agree to sell me his kit, but he was asking what to me was an extortionate amount. There was no way I could afford it so things just drifted along.
Soon my disastrous school years came to a disastrous end and I found myself signed-up to a seven year apprenticeship to become a joiner/cabinetmaker.
I loved the craft of creating things of beauty out of chunks of wood and I was good at it, but the passion for music never dissipated. Then the day came, when with the benefit of an income, I was able to buy the drum kit. It really was a pile of old kak, but it was a start.
My brainy band pals were moving into higher education but were still interested in the musical pastime. There came a time when we were offered a gig. Can’t now say for certain but it was probably unpaid, but that was to be the first of many.
Eventually we got to hear about an organisation called ‘The Semi-Professional Musicians Fellowship’ (SMF). We soon learned that the SMF had weekly meetings in which semi-pro gigs were discussed, exchanged and booked. There would also be a band spot where members would do thirty minutes for the hell of it. This was a wonderful new discovery. It marked the beginnings of a new chapter in all our experiences.
Band reunion 1997
Many of my pals were good enough to have considered a career in music, but I think apart from myself, there was only one who went on to work as a pro trumpet player, Kevin Hegarty, and another – a brilliant sax player, one of the finest this country has ever produced, Michael Healey – who has now spent his entire career in music.
So now you had a drum kit. How did it develop from there?
The ‘school’ band continued for a year or two. We did quite a few gigs, weddings and things like that, and we got a fee but pretty small beer though. Certainly not professional rates, but then we weren’t professional quality either!
The final glory came when we decided to ‘cut a record’! Wow! The ‘EP’ had just been invented, and we were one of the first people to actually make one. Let me hastily add however, that it was never for commercial purposes, just for nostalgia. I think they only pressed about 40/50 copies. I still have my copy.
The ultimate Stranglers related rarity?
Jet kindly provided an image of the EP that the band recorded that day. Under the name ‘The Omega Dance Orchestra’ they captured four tracks including In The Mood and Apple Honey. It was a 7″ white label pressing with the catalogue number SON-EP-106. Jet’s copy has a plain sleeve with band members’ names and other details handwritten on it.
With a total pressing of under fifty copies, this definitely has to be one of the rarest band related collectables…
The recording session was a slight disaster. We of course had no experience whatever of studio life. For their part, I don’t think the studio had seen much in the way of bands as big as ours either. We had only booked a two hour slot naively thinking it would be enough time, in the end it all started to get rushed as time was slipping. It’s not the greatest recording in the world!
I imagine sessions of those days involved three of four people. Listening to records of the period to-day, it’s clear that many didn’t even have a drum kit on them. Almost unheard of these days. I don’t remember the name of the studio, but I do remember that it was in the basement of a building right next door to the building in Soho Square, where CBS were situated for a long time and where of course we spent a large part of our recording career. Now there’s a spooky coincidence.
It may give you an idea of how long ago this was when I mention that inside the studio, there was a big blackboard which was autographed by some of the stars of the day, names like Tommy Steele, Guy Mitchell, Cliff Richard and Bert Weedon!
Then I started to get more into the real semi-pro arena on my own and some of the other guys did also. I did hundreds of gigs all over the place.
So you’re working during the day and doing gigs at night?
Yes, I had gigs almost every week.
Was there a high point during that part of the story?
Yes I think the one, out of so many, that keeps recurring in my memory, is the day I got a panic phone call from a Musicians Union booker who wanted a drummer for a ‘big’ band gig. They needed a drummer who could read. I certainly knew by then how to read music, but no-way was I practised and good enough to do a gig with ‘dots’, but I wanted the gig.
After a brief hesitation he said do it anyway we’re desperate. So I go along and it’s a Saturday night dance orchestra, well, more of a big band than an orchestra. About twenty guys in all.
It wasn’t too difficult, it just meant that I needed a nod from someone when there was a break or particular feature. I got through it pretty well OK and it was both a tremendous opportunity and a real thrill. There’s something really exciting about being in the midst of a big band of professionals and being part of making it happen. But that was an unusual gig. The run of the mill type of gig was more like four to six guys doing standards.
How long did this scene last?
Not sure how long it was now, but it seems like I was doing gigs for quite a few years.
What were you aiming for, at that point?
I was beginning to think about maybe going into music as a full blown pro.
And did you?
No, is the short answer. I did look at the opportunities and I did do some auditions but I think with hindsight I can say I was confused about exactly what I did want.
How do you mean?
Well, I was now coming towards the end of my seven years apprenticeship, and although I did enjoy much of it, I had reached the conclusion that I didn’t really want to be a joiner for the rest of my life and I had become tired of being told what to do. Music had shown me another life altogether, and I was kinda hooked.
Two things were becoming clear to me, firstly, unless you were fabulously wealthy, going into music meant – in all probability – working for someone. Playing in someone else’s band. Secondly, to get such a job, you needed to be the greatest player in the universe.
Music at that time, wasn’t innovative in the sense we know it today. These days, or certainly until very recent trends which have rocked the industry, (and I don’t mean that in a musical sense), the trend is/was towards new music, new personalities, new bands.
Back then, it was ‘quality’. Loads of bands all doing the same thing, but each competing to be the ‘best’, the slickest, with an emphasis on arrangements.
Now obviously, there were and always will be exceptions, but in general terms, to get anywhere, you had to be a virtuoso performer. In that sense, it was a bit like classical music, where perfection is king.
There just wasn’t an industry supportive of new innovative music, as opposed to ‘quality’ performers. It was the ‘performance’ that mattered, even at the expense of interesting music.
Somewhere along the line it changed. It became new and continually innovative ideas achieved by any means, and not necessarily ‘played’. It was the ‘sound’ that mattered, no matter how it was achieved, not so much the ‘performance’. I suppose the logical conclusion of that process culminated with ‘Punk’, where any ability to play, to ‘perform’, actually became a handicap!
These days, you can be absolute crap musically, so long as you wear crazy clothes, to exaggerate only ever so slightly!
So what was the answer to the problem?
I had to confront the reality that going into music perhaps wasn’t the promised land I might have hoped. Gigging around had provided a great deal of freedom, and a whole lot of fun. If I was now going to go after money, a ‘living’, the game would change.
I knew I didn’t want to be a session drummer. Just turn up and play this, type of thing. Or be in a band and just play what was put in front of me. That was not for me.
So what was the solution?
There seemed only two options, do what I didn’t want to do, what for me would have seemed like a nine to five job, or quit music.
And that’s what you did?
Yes. I gave it up, or at least I gave up the ambition to be a pro. I hung on to the semi-pro thing for quite a long time, many years in fact, after all it was a very useful supplement to my then modest income, and it was simple, uncomplicated.
I did what so many have done and many still do, I stayed with security and peace of mind, if somewhat unfulfilled. I guess you could say I chickened out.
So we know you did eventually go into pro music, what was going on in the hiatus?
The day the apprenticeship ended, was the end of a chapter of my life. I never worked in the industry again, not one single day. I seized my qualifications but have never made use of them professionally. I was beginning to wrestle with new possibilities in my life.
I was clear that the one thing I didn’t want to do was to spend the rest of my life working for someone and doing what I was told. As an apprentice I had spent the best part of seven years being subservient, not in a really bad way, it wasn’t unpleasant, but I just didn’t want any more of it. But for awhile at least, that’s exactly what I did.
I did loads of nonsense jobs. Bought this, sold that, drove this, drove that, sold that, bought this. After the disappointment with music not going anywhere, I realised I didn’t know anything about anything. How could I? I had left school illiterate after all those missed years and health problems through most of it. I had had a brush with music and it left an indelible mark on my psyche. I wanted to see what else was out there to be discovered.
Perhaps naively I thought if I were to just roam around I would eventually bump into a new life. Strangely, that is more-or-less what happened. All the bum jobs which seemed to be leading me nowhere, led me into circumstances which would never have presented themselves had I spent all those years in the joinery workshop.
I suppose the first inkling of a chain of events – although of course I didn’t know it at the time – was when I first encountered the cold white stuff. Yes, ice cream. Moving around constantly from pillar to post, I got to hear that there was a new trade boom in ice cream.
During the fifties, the country was beginning to find it’s feet again after the long austerity of the war years. New business opportunities were opening-up all over the place. I wanted to get into something new and exciting. But I had precious little capital, well, practically none.
Some enterprising company had started importing soft ice cream machines from Italy. To-day, everyone has seen them, but back then, it was a new sensation. The mere site of one of these machines was a guarantee of a queue a mile long. I thought I’d like some of that. In both senses! Then someone started putting them into vehicles, the rest is history.