Mining in the Underground – 60s
Being weird was a profession. The 60s Underground was an alternative society, a bunch of brothers and sisters who were readily identifiable; a camaraderie that meant you shared everything; a sense of fun; a tolerance for new ideas, difference, new experience; a different morality; a wish to travel, experience and live; a joie de vivre; a wish to chuck out the old rules and live in a better way. We were naïve and innocent but we were happy.
Opher & Liz 1968
We’d looked at the boring drab lives of our parents; at the humdrum of suburbia; the class system and soulless prostitution of work; the cycle of war and exploitation; we’d seen the intolerance, bigotry and arrogance and we thought we could do better. You could see the way the chips were stacked that it was impossible to change the system, the establishment was established and as immovable as a mountain. Therefore we would drop out of it and do our own thing.
When you walked round town and saw some dude coming towards you sporting hair and colour you knew you could go across, introduce yourself and have a good chat. There was an energy and camaraderie. We were in the same tribe, unified against the machine, digging the same vibe.
When I was in Boston it was quicker to hitch-hike round town than to get on a tram or bus. A lot of the Freaks were taxi drivers and they would pick you up for free. The creed of the Underground was to share and look after each other.
The problem was that doing your own thing meant scrabbling around for somewhere to live and something to live off. There were numerous little cottage industries in making belts, beads, scarves, clothes, candles and paraphernalia. There was always room for a little dealing, squatting, panhandling and dole. Failing that you could head off into the country and try your hand at self-sufficiency.
Dropping out of the system was fraught with problems unless you were a talented musician and could make it in a band.
Fortunately for me I was exempt from those kinds of concerns. I was a student. All I had to worry about was how to eke out a modest grant (I believe it was £110 a term) to pay rent on a shared room, eat, put petrol in my vehicle (currently a comer cob van hand-painted bright yellow) and still gain me access to three gigs a week and second-hand vinyl. In order to achieve this I worked as a road sweeper in the summer and for a year I worked all Friday night, six pm to six am, in Lyons bakery. It gave me a great deal of freedom though I did have to go in and catch at least half of my lectures or they would throw me out!
I chose my college, out of a very limited choice due to my poor grades at A Level, because when I walked in for interview it had a poster for Roy Harper in the entrance.
Opher 1967 – University application photo with hair carefully combed back out of the way.
I walked in to the refectory at our induction and made a beeline for a table where I befriended two mad characters in Jules and Pete who became friends for life. Funny how the subconscious works!
Every week we would study the NME for gigs and select what was best. There was at least one mandatory Harper gig and the scope for the others was amazing. Everyone was playing non-stop all the time! At the time we thought it would never end. Unfortunately it did end.
It left me feeling that I wish I had been more organised, selective and systematic. There were so many great acts that I never got to see. It was always that I’d see them next week. Thus Lennon, Howlin’ Wolf, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Screaming Jay Hawkins slipped through the net. However I did see most and had the pleasure of seeing them in small clubs and getting backstage to have a chat. Security did not exist back then and the bands were still one with the audience. We were all freaks creating an alternative culture. That rapidly went out the window.
So, let me see? What is the best way of explaining this? (If only I’d had a camera, taken notes or something – memories are so febrile).
OK – I’ll ramble because that is pretty much what it was like back then. I’ll go over the whole thing from 1967 to 1971 when the dream was finally over (though we kept pretending for a year or two more!). I’ll mix up venues and bands.
First there was the college circuit. Various universities put on gigs via their entertainment committees. These were usually bunches of Freaks who wanted to get their hands on all the best bands and because the best bands were cheap they could get just about anybody. So my college (Barking – later North East London Poly) put on regular concerts by the likes of Roy Harper, Al Stewart, the Prettythings, Third Ear Band, Slade and the like. I went to most of these although I gave Slade a miss because I considered them lightweight. Entry was usually about 4 shillings – 20p.
Other colleges put on just about everyone so I made a habit of catching Edgar Broughton, Davey Graham, Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, Traffic, Family, Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed.
Then there were the pubs that put halls aside for concerts. The Fishmongers Arms in Wood Green put on Pink Floyd and Man. The Toby Jug had a regular Blues Night with John Mayall, Chicken Shack, Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac, Aynsley Dunbar and the like. Though they were more expensive and charged 5 shillings – 25p.
There was Eel-Pie Island who had bands like Blossom Toes and Pink Floyd.
Then there were venues like the Mecca ballrooms that would put on Family and Arthur Brown.
The Freak venues were the all night clubs like the Marquee, UFO, Middle Earth and Klooks Kleek. They would do everything from Pink Floyd, Hendrix, Cream, to visiting West Coast Bands. An all night gig might have three top bands on such as Traffic, Soft Machine and Pink Floyd and might cost 10 shillings – 50p.
It was non-stop and there was always choice. I find it hard to imagine that back then I was choosing between Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac or Lennon playing the Lyceum with a host of other possibilities (many of whom I would now die for) bringing up the rear. There was even the odd occasion when you couldn’t be bothered.
On top of that you had the free gigs, benefits, happenings and such – like a regular Hyde Park hosted by Roy Harper and featuring Edgar Broughton, Deviants, Pink Fairies, Pink Floyd, Action, Third Ear Band, Soft Machine, Family, Jethro Tull, etc etc etc. and then the biggies with Blind Faith and the Stones.
Then there were the weekend festivals. They were really pricey though – a three day festival might set you back thirty shillings – £1.50.
Then there were things like the Electric Cinema, the Lyceum, Les Cousins, the Three Horseshoes Pub on Tottenham Court Road, the Barge at Kingston and various small clubs around like one out near Sunbury where were used to go and catch Mayall regularly.
In between all this you had to hang out with your mates playing each other music, sharing music and talking about music, politics, relevant news issues, social situations, mysticism and the nature of infinity, the universe and life, and reading.
Apart from Kerouac and the Beats there were the Freak activists like Jerry Rubin, Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seale, Abbie Hoffman, George Jackson and Angela Davies. There were my Sci-Fi novels and other novels to read. There was OZ and IT to get through. I tell you, man, life was hard! I don’t know how I fitted it all in. No wonder I had to stay up most of the night. Oh, if only I had recorded some of those all-night raps! It’s a wonder I got to college at all! My education was had in my own room.
Beatific Opher 1971
So now you will perhaps indulge me as I ride the beast of nostalgia and shine the spotlight of imperfect memory to illustrate the highlights that come to mind. It is a feeble, melancholic attempt at best for I fear that most is lost in the fog of time, and that which is remembered lacks the colour and intensity of the original. I am aware that whole gigs, bands and episodes are deleted in history for I have no recollection of having seen them at all even though I can confirm that I was there. However these fragments may serve to give you a flavour of those years – years in which I was ridden by a crazy force and filled with a passion that made my eyes gleam and loosened my tongue to fly its imaginative path of ideals faster than my brain could keep up.
We had fun bopping to Edgar Broughton and gleefully chanting to get those demons out. The demons were, in my mind at least, the crazy capitalist war-mongering society that was guiding our exploitative, intolerant, selfish, greedy and cruel society towards extinction (it still is). Edgar growled in his best Beefheart voice as he urged us to drop out and we loved it…….
There was Pink Floyd who I saw quite regularly. Their early shows in Middle Earth with Syd were mind blowing. The later incarnations maintained that imaginative creativity. The light shows and mesmeric sounds were spacey and like nothing I’d heard. The stand out things for me from later was a piercing performance of ‘Careful with that axe Eugene’ at the Fishmonger’s arms where I got an image of the band as silhouettes acting it out. But then that might just have been me. Then there was the Parliament Hills Camden free concert and grooving along to ‘Astronomy Domine’ which was the best I’d ever heard them do. It really drove along. Then there was Eel Pie Island where the floor was bouncing as they played. I got to see most of the other psychedelic bands – Action, Godz, Mandrake Paddle Steamer, Simon Dupree, Moody Blues, Tomorrow etc. but none of them got close to Floyd and later, when Prog Rock took off I saw bands like Genesis and Yes and they could not hold a light. The only band that managed to produce a great heavy spacey sound was Hawkwind.
I really regret not going along to Floyd’s stadium stuff in the 70s and 80s. I took the view that which would I want to go along and pay an exorbitant amount to see a band, who were reduced to distant ants on a stage, when I had seen them up close and personal for free, or at most 25p, on numerous occasions. I had the belief that Rock was best in a small sweaty club – close up! I still think it is but I had failed to realise that it had moved on and that there was a place for stadium rock. The whole thing had become a spectacle and a show rather than a performance. I think I would have enjoyed them.
As a footnote I did get to meet Syd. I was wandering through EMI studio in 1971 with Roy Harper and we bumped into Syd. Roy stopped and had a chat with him while I stood silently by. It was true what they said – he was a quiet pleasant guy, small with dark curly hair and he spoke quite vaguely but his eyes were gone; they were really glistening black holes peering out from some inner void.
Opher on the beach in Devon 1969
The Incredible String Band were another favourite. Gary Turp had got me into them. He was into Buddhism and meditation and had got himself a job in the park so that he could sit cross-legged in his hut and meditate. It always seemed to me that there was an underlying ploy. It appeared to attract hordes of pretty girls and he wasn’t adverse to a bit of Kundalini awakening! I first saw the Incredibles as a duo at some big festival when they played littered the stage with a vast assortment of instruments which they constantly picked up and put down in the course of every song. They did a great version of ‘Maybe Someday she’ll come along’. I also have fond memories of a great performance in the incongruous London Palladium of all places with the two girls Licorice and Rose. I loved their ‘Very Cellular song’ and was always singing ‘May the long time sun shine upon you’ – very uplifting. I later saw them with the theatrical group performing U at the Roundhouse. It was panned at the time but I loved it. It was great to see them reform and to get backstage at the Bloomsbury Theatre, courtesy of Darren. They then toured as a trio again and I got to meet Clive Palmer at Beverley Playhouse.
I was quite into Buddhism and Eastern philosophy at the time which was a consequence of the whole Jack Kerouac Beat thing. I was extremely turned off by the staid religion I was surrounded with full of Christian hypocrisy and I was looking for meaning and wonder. There seemed to me to be a different level to things. It fitted in with the whole acid culture. I was really into mystical experiences, different dimensions, wisdom of the ancients, infinity and the nature of the universe. We had endless excited discussions about it.
I have since realised that while it was all immensely intellectually stimulating and fulfilling to look for patterns and meaning in the universe around us and the inner realms of the mind it is all just intellectual froth. The ancients had no great wisdom. They were largely a bunch of semi-illiterates trying to understand the bewildering intricacies of life, death, nature and the universe without the benefit of technology and science. Their explanations and intuitive observations were all largely bollocks.
However the Incredible String Band were heavily associated with that naïve innocence of mystical wonder that I now look back on with great nostalgia and a whimsical smile.
If I had to plump for a religion it would be Buddhism – at least you don’t have to believe in puerile anthropomorphic concepts like god!
Because of Dick Brunning I got to see John Mayall from a very early stage. He was always playing this small club in Sunbury. I got to see him with Clapton who did the most amazing searing guitar runs a la Freddie King, and them Peter Green who I always felt was more lyrical and then with Mick Taylor who was equally as good. I used to get a bit pissed off with John who had a tendency to go off into more jazzy stuff with Dick Heckstall-Smith. At the time I liked my blues raw guitar-based Chicago style and didn’t like it adorned with brass. I wish I’d paid more attention. I have grown to appreciate the saxophone much more. I’d go along with Liz and we were packed in tight and the whole room bopped up and down.
Jethro Tull was like no other. I caught them when they were bursting upon the scene having come down to London from Blackpool. They played the Toby Jug in Tolworth and I was really impressed with Ian Anderson’s flute playing. He looked like a scarecrow crane standing on one leg with his frizzy hair and long overcoat. He’d hide behind speakers and stick a leg out. It was novel to have a flute in a Rock band and it sounded good. I also liked their version of ‘Cat’s squirrel’ featuring Mick Abrahams guitar. It was different and it gelled with its theatrical elements.
Led Zeppelin had broken big in the USA and yet were just starting in England. They did a tour of small clubs and I caught them at the Toby Jug. I paid the princely sum of 25p entrance. I wanted to see what the fuss was about. They were good to dance to, very loud and great to watch.
The Roundhouse was one of my favourite venues. It had a casual, community festival type feel to it with all the stalls all around. It was particularly exciting when the Doors came over and played. I’d always loved the Doors and have a vivid picture in my head of Jim Morrison in his leather trousers throwing himself on the stage during the execution scene in ‘unknown soldier’. The Doors were special. A friend of mine, Hank, had a stall there and used to make leather belts. He sold one to Jim that night.
Tyrannosaurus Rex was a great little duo. Marc and Steve used to sit crossed legged on the stage and play these delightful acoustic songs with nice melodies like ‘Salamander Palagander’. There was no inkling of the later Glam Rock.
Jimi Hendrix was immense. To this day nothing comes near to him. I have never seen such an exciting act. He had everything. Somehow I only got to see him three times and the last farewell concert felt sadly low in energy but perhaps that was merely our heightened expectations. I caught him in a small club that I remember as being Klooks Kleek. It was unbelievable. He played the feedback, played the guitar with his elbow, behind his head, through his legs, with his teeth and did all his tricks. The band were all so good. The drumming and bass created a wall of sound that Hendrix powered through. I also saw him at Woburn. We waited all weekend and the excitement was palpable. I had this thing going with my mate Dan that he was the reincarnation of Elmore James (another of my guitar heroes though there were no similarities of style). Geno Washington came on before him and I remember the audience unkindly pelting him to get him off so that Jimi could get on. It was one of the most awesome concerts of my life, though it was panned by the critics and the sound was described as poor and muddy. It sounded good to me! More importantly – the vibe was right! The last time I saw him was his farewell concert at the Royal Albert Hall. We were devastated that the Experience was breaking up. Jules went down to the RAH on his pushbike and queued overnight to get us tickets though I spoke to Jules recently and he had no recollection of this. We spent weeks in raging excitement and came out hugely disappointed. New Traffic were crap and Hendrix appeared lacklustre. He still remains one of the best acts I’ve ever seen and no one gets near to what he did with a guitar!
Traffic were usually mesmerising. I remember dancing holding Liz tightly to me and drifting into some magic trance as they weaved their instruments through ‘Dear Mr Fantasy’ and ‘Feelin’ Alright’. I always felt that they caught ‘Dear Mr Fantasy’ well on record but failed with ‘Feelin’ Alright’. It was absolutely hypnotically brilliant live.
Family were a band who you had to see live. They never captured those live performances on record. They were regulars in the clubs and I’ve got great memories of them doing scintillating performances of ‘Hung up down’, ‘Weavers Answer’ and ‘Observations from a hill’. It was really sad when Rick Grech left to join the lamentable Blind Faith. I remember the band doing a medley of old Rock ‘n’ Roll numbers at a New Year’s do and then later on at another occasion Roger Chapman smashing a bottle of beer by throwing it at the wall in the Mecca ballroom in Ilford as the climax to their act. It exploded. I think the band got banned from all Mecca clubs after that.
The Strawbs played a lot of the pubs around and I caught them a few times with Pete Smith. He loved them. They were really rousing live with songs like ‘The Battle’ and ‘The man who called himself Jesus’.
Tomorrow were trying hard to break into the Psychedelic scene ruled by Floyd. They got this great stage act with all these long flowing robes and a great light show with smoke. It was really trippy. I remember them doing ‘My white bicycle’ with all this stroboscopic effect causing it all to flicker about. They lost all credibility after the ‘Excerpt from a teenage opera’ Keith West Pop fiasco.
On the acoustic front there were a bunch of guitar specialists, such as Davey Graham, Bert Jansch and John Renbourn, who seemed to be vying with each other over technique. They were joined by American exponents such as John Fahey and Stefan Grossman. I enjoyed them all but preferred it when there were vocals as with the mighty Jackson C Frank and Roy Harper and to a lesser extent Al Stewart. I got along a couple of times to the Horseshoe Pub in Tottenham Court road. They played in the basement for free. It was a lovely atmosphere like friends in a front room. I followed all of them round but never really got into John Martyn or Michael Chapman or on the American side Tim Buckley but I adored Arlo Guthrie, Phil Ochs, Buffy St Marie, Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez. My regret is that I never got to see Buffy, Phil or Nick Drake. It’s always the ones that get away isn’t it?
A highlight of acoustic stuff has always got to be Roy Harper with Jimmy Page doing ‘Male Chauvinist Pig Blues’ at the Royal Albert Hall. It was in a different league.
The Blues bands featured loads at the Toby Jug and I got to see them all from Aynsley Dunbar’s retaliation to Keef Hartley. They all seemed to be off-shoots from John Mayall. But my two favourites were Chicken Shack and Fleetwood Mac. Chicken Shack with Christine Perfect on piano and Stan Webb on guitar always did a faultless version of ‘I’d rather go blind’ and some great guitar work from Stan. But Fleetwood Mac were the stars and I saw them regularly. They had such a good time on stage and got the audience rocking. They were really always three bands in one and later with the addition of Danny Kirwin became four. As an Elmore James lover I was knocked out by Jeremy Spencer’s slide guitar renditions. They rollicked! Then there was Pete Green’s beautifully phrased blues on stuff like ‘I need your love so bad’. Then there was the progressive dimension when they went off into stuff like ‘The green Manalishi’. Utterly incredible. I really enjoyed Jeremy’s Rock ‘n’ Roll contributions and then Danny’s guitar and songs. What a brilliant band. And what a tragedy that Peter got fucked up on acid and Jeremy cracked up and got sucked into that stupid religious cult. They should have gone on forever. Now all we have is the Pop Stadium stuff of that later incarnation and it wasn’t a patch. You couldn’t beat the original Fleetwood Mac rocking away in a small sweaty club with Pete’s brilliant blues licks and Jeremy’s rousing Elmore slide riffs.
I have great memories of Arthur Brown. He’d hit the charts with ‘Fire’ and was due to top the bill at what I remember as being the 1968 Kempton Festival. We had this build up all weekend with the announcer’s telling us how great it was going to be and how we wouldn’t believe it. Well we all knew about the flaming headdress and Arthur being lowered on to the stage from a crane so we were expecting something absolutely spectacular. By the time he came on there was fever pitch. As it happened he was once again lowered on to the stage from a crane which was a bit of an anticlimax. But then there was this great crashing noise and shouts from behind which we all thought was part of the act. Wow!! We were saying, looking round to see what was going on. Arthur had hit the stage running and launched into ‘Fire’. He’d only got a verse in and stopped – shouted ‘Oh Shit!’ and stalked off. What had happened was that a lot of people had climbed into a lighting gantry. It had toppled over on to a series of old corrugated iron sheds which had people on or under. They had collapsed like a pack of cards and a lot of people were injured. On another occasion I saw Arthur and his Crazy World perform at Klooks Kleek. There were only eight of us in the audience but he gave it his all complete with costumes and flames. It was awesome if a little strange. I last saw Arthur in 1999 touring with Cheryl Beer and Tim Rose. He came in with long gown carrying a lantern on a pole while his two accompanists drummed a rhythm on the backs of their guitars and launched into a brilliant version of Dylan’s ‘A Hard Rains-a-gonna fall’.
Tim Rose came over in the late 60s and I caught him doing a great set that included ‘Come away Melinda’ and ‘Morning Dew’.
All those interminable twenty minute drum solos could be a bit hard on the patience but occasionally things went well. A stand out was hearing Ginger Baker and Phil Seaman battle it out in a battle of the drums to see who was king. Another stand out was Keith Moon at Roy Harper’s Rainbow concert. I was there at the rehearsal and got to meet Keith. He was a really friendly, bubbly guy. I also met Bonzo who was a bit crazy, Ronnie Lane who was quiet and the rest of Led Zep.
The Deviants were never musically brilliant but they were really political and anarchic and I loved that. They used to play with the Pink Fairies a lot and I remember once seeing them at a free concert in Hyde Park when Twink got up ion the Gantry and dived twenty feet headfirst into the crowd. I was sure he’d break his neck but he got right back up, on stage and playing – nuts!
Another one of my favourite bands was Free. They were amazing to watch live. There wasn’t a weakness. The drumming and bass were consistently amazing. Paul Rodger’s voice was probably among the very best in Rock and Koss was out of this world. I saw them once in a small pub. They were playing in the corner with no stage and the crowd stood all around. They were so powerful. Koss stood in the back playing chords as Paul sang his heart out. Then it was time for a solo and he strode forward out of the shadows with his hair like a lion’s mane, his face screwed up and the power exploding, placing one foot down, and leaning back with a grimace on his face straining every note out of his whole body. He blew you away. I met them all in the backstage changing room at another pub gig. They were actually supporting Roy Harper and I carried Roy’s stuff in, namely one guitar. I was roadie for the day. They were all most friendly and welcoming and I can still picture Koss’s big grin.
There were other various highlights like King Crimson at what was supposed to have been their first ever gig doing a brilliant ‘20th Century Schizoid Man’ and ‘In the court of the Crimson King’. Then there was Black Sabbath doing their whole sacrificial act and Deep Purple at the start of all that heavy riffed heavy metal stuff. Steppenwolf came over, with John Kaye in leather pants, strutting around doing ‘The Pusher’ and ‘Born to be Wild’. I always loved the guitar sound on ‘The Pusher’.
I was also lucky enough to catch Taste with Rory Gallagher’s amazing high-powered guitar.
The Nice was always a good show. I used to enjoy their act with the burning of the American flag as they played ‘America’ and Keith Emerson symbolically killing his electric organ by stabbing it with knives and getting all these electronic squeals out of it. It was a wonder he didn’t electrocute himself. I remember them playing the Fairfield Halls in Croydon and doing a storming version of Tim Hardin’s ‘How can you hang on to a dream’.
It’s a wonder I’ve got any hearing left at all after seeing the Move. They were so loud that I swear you couldn’t actually hear the songs, they just reverberated through you. You felt yourself physically shaking with the force of it.
Duster Bennet was a great solo bluesman. He had such a great voice and managed to hold a festival audience with his one man blues act. What a loss. He died having fallen asleep at the wheel coming back from a gig.
Crosby Stills Nash and Young gave a scintillating performance with exceptional harmonies. The tour de force was Neil Young’s ‘Ohio’. It was quite a statement. Neil Young himself was awesome the power of songs like ‘Cinnamon girl’ was phenomenal. He was always a rival to Dylan.
I caught Joni Mitchell a bit later. She was amazing but I wish I’d seen her earlier. I saw her with Tom Scott. I never liked her jazzier stuff as much but what a voice and what a song writer.
The Band were brilliant musicians and I loved their stuff and their live performance was spot on but in many ways they were the cause of the end of that great period of time with the Psychedelic and Progressive Rock explosion. After Hendrix and Cream split up it seemed to drift. The musicians were seduced by the Band’s Americana and Country. It would never be as good.
I’m not quite sure how I managed to get a degree. I was never there and when I was I was not in a fit state to learn anything. I don’t think I slept for four years!