Airbridge: one person’s personal, and therefore possibly highly biased, view.
Bill Bruford once said that the best thing to happen to him was being born in 1948.
I was born in 1958, and, yes, I seem to have been destined ever since to be too late. I had to watch the ‘sixties swing from the wrong side of the boarding school fence. Indeed, the ‘sixties continued to swing into the early ‘seventies, but by the time I gained my freedom in 1975 the party was over. All that was left was the clearing-up and the hangovers.
Decent music still existed, but it was extremely hard to find. The rest of the media and the music industry itself wanted us to only be aware of, and to listen to, such bands and artists as the Bay City Rollers, Sweet, Gary Glitter, Slade…. Most of whom were actually great musicians, bursting with talent and skills they were never allowed to fully exploit. Dumbing down was with us even then. You had to have friends with record collections if you were to discover the delights of Pink Floyd, Genesis, the Who’s ‘Quadrophenia’ or Led Zeppelin’s ‘Four Symbols’. Furthermore, I found myself surrounded by people who were quick to tell me I shouldn’t like Barclay James Harvest, that there was something not-quite-nice about someone who enjoyed Jethro Tull or King Crimson. In fact, all these bands were supposed to be ‘over’ (though history tells us a rather different story). I was too late again. On listening to one of my sound-on-sound demos, a music publisher winced and said what a pity I hadn’t written that song five years earlier. ‘In the hands of the right band it would have made a lot of money.’
By the end of the ‘seventies the UK was dominated by an aggressive fashion marketing drive in which the very cheapest materials, such as bin-liners, could be sold at vastly – I mean VASTLY – inflated prices, as clothing. God knows what a half decent safety pin would cost you on the King’s Road… but you certainly wouldn’t have wanted a fully decent one.
Meanwhile, the music press was damning bands and audiences alike if they didn’t conform to this new fashion dictate. You were scum of the earth if you so much as thought of buying a ticket for Caravan or Rush, let alone the Moody Blues.
Stepping out of drama college and into 1980’s recession (too late again), I attended a number of auditions for any band that wasn’t Punk. Sorry, I just wasn’t a fan, and moreover I hated being pushed in a direction I really didn’t want to take. I was still too young and green to realise that nothing is forever.
So I returned to Norfolk, where I felt I could breath. One day, stopping outside Cleff’s Music Store in Pottergate, Norwich, I spotted a small card in the window: ‘Local band seeks guitarist. Influences: Hawkwind, Yes and Emmerson, Lake and Palmer. Call Sean on….’
I think it was the only telephone number I’ve ever successfully memorised long enough to make the eight-mile journey home.
Having fixed a date on which Sean wasn’t going to be washing his hair, I set off for the preliminary meeting.
Sean Godfrey, in those days the lead singer, lived in New Costessey, (Noo Cozzy to the locals), just outside the city. As well as very clean hair, he also possessed everything a rock group needed except a drum kit, and the drummer, Dave Beckett, had one of those. I was able to play Sean a few of my songs – ‘Dreams (Deus ex Machina)’ being one of them – on a beautiful Ibanez 12string he had left out on the sofa. I also produced a tape of instrumentals I had recorded on four-track in the hope of flogging as library music. Home recording was still a few years away, so being able to play someone a recording wot I done was a bit of a luxury. I was invited to the next audition, the following Thursday evening.
This was held in the bass player’s girlfriend’s parents’ house in Norwich’s ‘Golden Triangle’. There, I met Graham Chilvers (bass) and Dave Beckett (drums). The band was called No Parallax, and Graham explained to me that they weren’t just looking for a guitarist, but someone who would write the material and generally lead the band. Anxious to please, I ran through a few songs I’d written, and Graham remarked, ‘You didn’t tell us you could sing as well.’ (The jury’s still out on that one.)
Afterwards, it was round to Dave’s house, where Graham popped the question: ‘So, do we have a band?’
Well, it seemed we did. The only problem was no one had thought to take the advertisement out of Cleff’s Music shop window.
Now Sean, as many of you know, is very kind, well-intentioned and timid. When another guitarist contacted him, Sean simply didn’t have the heart to turn him away.
This guitarist I shall refer to as Crow Magnon. He was tall, bony, with long hair and slightly mad eyes. I later discovered that he liked to begin the day with two hefty spliffs for breakfast, before going to work, ‘teaching’ children under seven years old. He had a Gibson twin-neck 6/12 string, and a Marshall stack, neither of which he was afraid to use. I went onto second guitar, backing vocals and keyboards. To add to Sean’s Wasp synthesizer, I bought a Vox Jaguar single manual organ, which without a Leslie speaker tended to sound a bit churchy. But when, put through a fuzz box, it didn’t.
Crow Magnon had a great ability, except that he expected everyone to play along with him while lacking the discipline to return the favour. When he ‘wrote songs’ he in fact created rather complex and very loud guitar parts, round which the rest of us constructed arrangements and wrote lyrics. When it came to my songs, he wouldn’t play any of the guitar parts, so I had to, which meant keyboards were out, while he would shriek and wail through the whole thing without regard to little details such as time or key. I tried to point this out to him, and he came back at me smiling with, ‘Yeah, man! That’s what jazzers call ‘playing outside’.’ He also suggested we should organise a gig.
In my unasked-for and undeserved role as Band Leader, I called the vicar in near-by Tasburgh, who put me onto the man in charge of renting out the village hall. For the princely sum of £5.00, including the licence to sell beer, I booked a date; a Friday night sometime in November 1980.
Meanwhile, we’d all expressed dissatisfaction with the No Parallax name, not least because there was a band going round called No Parallex. When the village hall man asked me what the band was called (’Just say anything, so I can write it in the diary’) I blurted out the first thing that came into my head. ‘Ah-hum… Airbridge Ceremony!’
At the next rehearsal, I told the others the news, apologising for the name, but they all said, ‘Hey, yeah! I like that. Just drop the ‘Ceremony’. ‘Air
The gig was a living nightmare for all of us except Crow Magnon, who wailed and screamed to his heart’s content, and the audience – mostly bikers – who, when we finished, remained seated waiting for the second half. So, after a can of unreal ale, we went back on stage and played everything again. Of course, the great thing about having Crow Magnon in the band was that no one could hear that I didn’t know one end of a keyboard from another, but I was deaf for the next two days.
By now, however, I was having a crisis of self-confidence, and seriously considering leaving the band. The simple fact was that my songs were awful. Every one of them was a mess. Crow’s sounded pretty good…. And then it hit me. We were all pulling our weight in his pieces, but when it came to mine he was pulling them to shreds with his atonal shrieks and wails. As it happened, the rest of the band felt pretty much the same: they wanted Crow gone, and because I was the newest member out of the rest of us, I was deputed to remove him.
The two of us met at the Adam and Eve pub in Eaton, where, over a pint of more unreal ale, I explained that I was leaving the band. Crow tried not to look pleased, and began making sympathetic noises, but I cut him off with: ‘Er… but the only thing is, I’m afraid, the rest of the guys are coming with me… and we’re keeping the name.’ D’you know, I really believed that this was the kindest way of telling him.
Our first Norwich gig was even more daunting. This time we’d be playing White’s, a much-respected venue, and it wasn’t going to be in front of an audience of accommodating bikers. We were going to perform to complete strangers, and we’d chosen a musical form that had been utterly denounced and vilified by the media and the fashion police. It was a trial run on a dead night, but while we were setting up the audience just kept coming. The place was filling up with people who had surely come with the sole purpose of canning us off stage. Someone pierced my bubble of anxiety to tell me that a journalist wanted to talk to me. Why me? Anyway, I took a deep breath and decided to be charming rather than defensive.
To my surprise, Richard Friar, now Richard Penguin, was actually very supportive of progressive rock, and quite encouraging of any new band willing to buck the current trend and do what they believed in. He later introduced me to fellow progressive rock campaigners Subway, the Frequency Band, the Lisa Wolfe Band…. We seemed to be part of a good old fashioned subcult.
Once again, we didn’t have quite enough material, but since we’d taken the decision to play only original music – no covers – we took the view that if we repeated our better songs in the second half, no one would notice. It just about paid off, although one or two of the audience did say, afterwards, that we were a little samey in places.
Astonished as I was by the audience’s favourable reaction, there was one last hurdle to get over. We’d saved our ‘best’ number for the encore. (Well, our longest, anyway.) It was inspired by a book I had on stone circles in Britain – yes! I know! – and consisted of an opening soundscape, a cosmic guitar riff, a fast bit with lyrics by Sean, another soundscape and finally a weep-you-bastards-WEEP! Guitar solo. As we went into it, I had a ‘What the hell was I thinking?’ sinking feeling. OK, so the audience has been great up ‘til now, but this was taking things much too far. Surely. All those accusations of self-indulgence and pretention haunted me through every note and beat. Finally, my Telecaster howled and crashed its last –
And there was dead silence.
That was it. I’d gone too far this time, and killed the band on our first city gig.
Then I became aware of this strange noise – a sort of distant murmuring that gathered volume, modulating to a kind of hiss, and then a roar; clapping, whistling…. They liked it! They actually approved!
My brother-in-law and music publisher, Paul Rodriguez, came up with a plan for us to make a video. He suggested that I contact the University of East Anglia’s video department and see if I could interest them in the project.
This probably would have worked anywhere else in the UK, but there was always a bit of a funny vibe between the UEA and – well – anything outside it. At about this time the Norwich Scene was taking off: Norwich was tipped to be the Liverpool of the ‘eighties. Certainly, bands like The Higgsons and The Farmer’s Boys were making names for themselves nationally, but they were UEA bands, and the promoter at the university took a very dim view of any off-campus group or artist. I was passed on to Nexus, the UEA’s video society, who were actually very keen and helpful. The only problem was that they only had home video cameras. However, this could be dealt with by putting the resulting video through an extremely expensive gizmo called at timebase corrector, which would bring the video up to broadcast standard.
Meanwhile, I contacted the dance teacher I’d known at drama college, Sue Wells. She’d left the college by now, and was keen to help. It looked like we were set to become the first band ever to self-produce a video.
Sue brought two promising dance students with her, and shooting began during the weekend of the Royal Wedding in 1981. Graham, however, didn’t turn up on the first day – I think it clashed with football, or something. I was a bit unreasonable about the whole thing, but I was young and mouthy.
Then reality took back control. Anglia TV didn’t want to know because they were like that in those days. (Why support local talent?) The local BBC, however, were keen to screening the video, but in order to do so it had to be put through a timebase corrector, as mentioned above. The nearest was in London, which wouldn’t have been a problem, but …
These were still the days of closed-shop unions. The Rules stated that all such ventures should involve only – and the right number of – union members. We’d used a hand-held camera, which was fine, but we hadn’t used two men to operate it (this went back to the days when TV cameras were huge structures on wheels that required one person to do the actual filming and the other to pull and push the thing around. This hadn’t been a physical necessity for some years, but that didn’t change the rules.) We also hadn’t used a sound engineer on location. The sound track was two songs we’d already recorded, ‘To Absent Friends’ and ‘Better Times’, which were played off a cassette on location so the dancers knew what they were moving to, but the sound track proper was dubbed on later. We’d also failed to employ the requisite number of lighting technicians (we filmed in daylight). In fact, who knows what size army we should have employed… or where we would have found the money.
So, sniffed at by Anglia and black-balled by the Beeb, we nevertheless sent the master to London to be copied and marketed. Despite having been assiduously wrapped it in foil, padding and what-all, the master arrived blank. The whole thing had been a waist of a number of people’s time and money. Chalk it up to experience, but I still feel dreadful about those two dancers and Sue Wells.
But then Richard Friar-now-Penguin introduced me to Stephen J. Bennett.
More will follow …