(Post by John Allan, from Bridgetown, Western Australia – March 2021)
Being in “The Biz” in those halcyon days of the mid to late 70s, I was privy to many snippets of juicy gossip. What ? Being a musical instrument salesman by day and a gigging sax player by night doesn’t cut it ?
OK, I heard many a tall tale and true about bands and artistes working around the Glasgow area as a teenage wannabe.
Before death by disco, Glasgow was blessed with a myriad of venues and I was fortunate enough to play at several of them in the 70s. The Dial Inn, Saints and Sinners (King Tut’s), Tiffany’s (The Locarno/Zanzibar), Shuffles (The Astoria/Electric Gardens/The Garage), The Maggie and the mecca of them all, The Burns Howff.
The Howff was where you played if you wanted to be discovered. Stone The Crows, Frankie Miller, Alex Harvey and Simple Minds allegedly all got their starts there. You certainly didn’t play for the money. I was in a 9 piece band and the payout barely covered our bus fares.
Many a band would try and fail at the Howff. One lot of Who clones decided to embrace the Roger Daltrey mic swinging act. It may work at Wembley Stadium when you’ve got half a football pitch in front of you and are on an 8 foot high stage, but it’s a different matter in a cosy wee nook of a Glasgow pub. People were ducking for cover as the swinging mic cleared glasses off tables.
A death metal band decided to go one better than Ozzy and have their singer emerge from a coffin at the beginning of their act. To enhance the theatre, they had hired a dry ice machine. Usually used in large auditoriums, the band had miscalculated the output of the device and within seconds the whole lounge bar was floor to ceiling in cold mist which then engulfed the public bar below. Petrified punters clutched their half ‘n halfs in fear of the Grim Reaper emerging from the fug!
Many a tale I heard from my boss, Freddy, like the infamous Glasgow/Italian organ player Mario with the high pitched voice. Mario’s piece de resistance when soloing, was to play descending arpeggios on the keyboard. Unfortunately, unable to similarly ascend, he would run his thumb up the keys while rocking the organ on it’s stand and attempt a handstand. Very Keith Emerson if your memory goes back that far. One fateful night at the Falkirk Town Hall with it’s notorious 6 foot stage, Mario got that wee bit over excited with the handstand, lost his balance and back flipped over organ and stage. As the band peered into the darkness of the hall, a faint high squeak could be heard “ama aw right boys” !
Then the bass player who, at a Yule time gig, momentarily forgot that he had updated his old rig and jumped onto his speaker at a climatic part of the show only to be propelled across the stage and smashed into the Xmas tree – his previous set up wasn’t on castors.
We played a few tricks on Freddy ourselves. We players all kept our instruments in the back of the shop as we would go to gigs straight after work. We swapped his cherished Les Paul Custom for a cheap Japanese copy, then turned up with his original minutes before his band were due to start. Then we strung his guitar left handed once and turned up with new strings and a string winder. Kept him on his toes.
Another story relates to a singer at an audition who was clearly struggling with hitting the high notes. Somebody suggested he stand on a chair. Reluctant at first, the vocalist stood up on it. A nod and a wink and the band lowered the key of the tune and miraculously he hit his note. Trying again with him off the chair, the band reverted to the original key and the singer continued to struggle (lead vocalist are not the smartest of breeds) This continued a few times more and the band members agreed that they liked his voice but couldn’t decide how to work the chair into the act !
Not all these tales related to that time. At the shop we were visited by elderly sales reps who had been big band players back in the 40s. One former alto sax player told us about getting a better paid gig on the night his big band were playing at their usual residency. He asked a non playing friend to sit in with saxophone section. Our alto buddy gave him one of his old saxes with the reed removed and was given the instruction to mime and just copy what the rest of the guys in the section were doing. Nobody would notice one saxophone part missing.
On the night, the drums and bass struck up, trumpets and trombones blasted out the intro then the conductor gesticulated for the saxophone section to stand up. Not a sound. All 5 ‘players’ were ‘deps’ (deputies or stand-ins) !
On Friday the 17th of September, 1976 my band Souled Out plus Cirkus, Legend, Sneaky Pete, Skeets Boliver and Peter John Vettesse were finalists in the Sunday Mail “Popscot ’76” competition. I made it to the colour centrefold (fully clothed) of the Sunday Mail. Backing singers June and Marie in matching sparkly boob tubes and me all in black wearing a beret. As my head is tilted forward, you can’t see my face but I assure that’s me. (As if anybody would still have a 1976 Sunday Mail pull out – but if you do, please contact me !)
We were on early in the concert so it meant we could relax and watch the other contestants. I noticed one guy in the change room struggling to put on these ridiculously high platform boots. It was Peter John Vettesse. He then strode on stage and attempted to sit down at his Fender Rhodes electric piano and bank of synthesizers. Unfortunately he hadn’t calculated the extra legroom needed with platforms so couldn’t get his knees under the piano keyboard. He spent the next few minutes struggling to get the boots off again accompanied by the shuffles and groans of an impatient audience. What a loser thought the young man with the oversized beret.
That loser went on to be keyboard player for Jethro Tull all through the 80s, arranger and producer for Annie Lennox, Mike Hucknall and the BeeGees. Humble pie digested it was time to Roll Over Beethoven (Chuck beret !)
Just for your information neither Souled Out nor PJV won Popscot ’76. That honour went to a Dundee oufit called Skeets Boliver led by a young Michael Marra who I believe wrote many a fine tune before his untimely death. The Skeets won a record deal but had to change their reggae tinged winning entry “Shithouse Door” to “Side Street Door”.
That’s showbiz folks and I’m glad I’m no longer a part of it !
Who am I kidding !!