My first band was called "Shave 'em Dry" it was a blues band with five members. Pete Hughes was the singer and an old friend of mine. Pete had a great voice and played great harmonica. He had a fantastic blues collection and really had a lot to do with influencing my early musical direction introducing me to such greats as Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Muddy Waters. We used to spend hours in the Discory record shop in Birmingham listening to our favourite blues singers. Pete is truly one of nicest people in this world and still a great friend today.
Also in the band was Ozzy (Dave Sheldon) on bass, myself on guitar and although we started rehearsing with Jeff Louis on drums it was actually Barry Scrannage (Spence) who eventually took over as drummer. Spence was a very powerful drummer, who was with me right up to The Flying Hat Band. We originally at rehearsals had a keyboard player, Billy Bing. I had known him since I was 5 or 6, he was a great self taught pianist but he tragically died of Leukaemia after battling it for a long time. We used to rehearse in village halls or anywhere that we could get for just a few pounds whenever we could scrape the money up between us.
The first ever gig I played was at Henry's Blues house in Birmingham. At first I was so nervous I could hardly perform. I remember renditions of "spoonful", "crossroads" and a selection of blues songs always with a lot of room for jamming or self-indulgence! We got through it though and with that "first gig" under the belt felt a lot more confident and ready to move on.
We had an old Bedford van that was so rotten you could see the road through the floor. We could never afford to tax it and normally only had enough money to pay for the fuel to get us to the next town we were playing in. We however always seemed to make it through.
We played many and varied gigs some completely inappropriate but we had to take what we could get. I remember being booked for weddings and seeing the look of disbelief from the bride or parents as we struck into a ten minute free form section, or as Spence began his thunderous, drum solo. I remember one gig we played at an ice rink and every time the skaters came round in a bunch, the wind they generated was actually blowing our hair around. We'd play to three hundred, thirty, or three people and still play our heart out, and amongst the bad venues there were some great little pubs and clubs where we all improved as musicians and learned our skills.
The whole era of my early days from Shave ‘em Dry onwards was one of living from day to day. Because I'd left a "proper" job to embark on a musical career my father and I didn't see eye to eye and eventually I had to leave home. I don't blame him though, he worked hard all his life and couldn't believe that I was going to earn a living playing guitar. At that time, in reality the odds were against it.
So I left home and for the first week slept in a friends van. Eventually after crashing at other people's flats and trying not to overstay my welcome I managed to get a bedsit in Birmingham. I have pretty awful memories of freezing damp nights and days huddled around the gas fire (if it was on) playing guitar with cold hands. Cold though it was, it was still home, and although there was only a fifty-fifty chance of getting through the night without an intruder kicking the door in, I survived it and looking back there were many amusing stories I can recall from those times.
Often we weren't paid at the end of the night because the D J had left with the money or for some other reason, but on one occasion we got paid for not playing. We set up on a stage about as big as a postage stamp in a pub in Yeovil and when we struck up it was so loud that the barman had to catch glasses falling off the shelves. He jumped over the bar screaming, and paid us twenty five pounds to stop. So we did and with nothing else to do consumed a large quantity of Guinness.
One night playing a University gig we were asked to back a stripper for extra money (It was the difference between having food or not on the way home). We said yes and after much debate thought a track called "Caravan" would be appropriate. We began playing and the weirdest transvestite appeared on stage. Although taken aback we continued but when she (He) pulled a 10 foot snake out of a box and tried wrapping it around my guitar all hell broke loose. I may have over reacted but on impulse knocked her (Him) out, the snake escaped and the audience panicked. It was utter pandemonium. Needless to say we didn't get paid extra and were all hungry on the way back.
I always remember an audition we did in London. We arrived in Wimbledon and were asked to set up in an office and perform in front of this guy. We did this while he sat behind his desk smoking a cigar. After a couple of songs he stopped us and said he wasn't interested and that we were too heavy for him. As it happened it was quite fortunate because we found out afterwards it was Don Ardon, and Don as most people in the business know had quite a Notorious reputation.
"Shave 'em dry" developed into "Merlin". Times were still hard then. I have memories of van repairs, such as changing the head gasket of the Bedford truck in the snow. We never had any idea what we were doing and had borrowed torque wrenches etc for this one particular repair. We took the engine apart. There were pieces strewn all around the vehicle and I remember desperately wishing I was not having to do this in mid winter. After hours of work with frost bite setting in we managed to get it all back together and unbelievably it started up. The old Bedford was never the same though and wouldn't go over 50 mph after that.
Normally we would head home after a gig or sleep in the van, but sometimes we would be invited to stay at people’s homes or flats. Over the years we have stayed in an array of weird and wonderful places with some weird and wonderful people. We have stayed in hippy communes, derelict homes, tents, caravans, bedsits, mansions or one occasion a castle. It was always interesting, to say the least, and the people we met were often generous and intriguing and we'd always stay up till the small hours sharing what they had in the way of food, drink and music.
Despite all the hardships, however, nothing else mattered but getting to the next venue and performing, and there were a lot of good friends who all helped us get through these early days. It was hard work but we survived and had so many adventures along the way. It all gave us so much determination and inner strength. Attributes that are always essential in the music business.