A lot of people ask me what life was like all those years on the road. They ask it like I could fold my thoughts into a tidy bundle and lay that bundle out on the table and pick through it and say, “Hello? What’s this? A toothbrush?”
Blimey, if it were that easy! In fact, if there were such a bundle of thoughts about my life as road manager for some of England’s most notorious rock bands, it would be so sodden with unidentifiable filth that you’d set it aflame and wish never to speak of the experience again.
Strictly speaking, my career began with skiffle. Skiffle, for those of you too young to remember, was the groundbreaking style of folk music that exploded onto the British scene in the 1950s. Like all lasting popular music, this upbeat style began in America, played by New Orleans jazz men. And like any black form of music, the British musicians of the post-war era could not get enough.
Skiffle was aggressively primitive, and that’s what I loved about it. True, most of us played like crap, but that didn’t stop us from forming hundreds of bands almost overnight.
Life in Bexleyheath, a suburban enclave of London, was dull to the point of literal death. Between 1952 and 1958, 30 percent of the population committed suicide.
This was a dark period indeed. After attending school and then our after-school jobs, my mates and I would bicycle home and trade cardboard cutouts. They didn’t have anything printed on them, just squares of cardboard. Bradley and Jeremy and “Nobby Randall” and I would sit on a pile of dirt in my back yard and trade cardboard every night, only taking breaks to attend funerals.
Then one day, over the wireless, I heard Petey MacGullum, the Scottish musician who – along with Lonnie Donegan – popularized this rather obscure musical form for British lads like me.
MacGallum was a multi-instrumentalist, but he never played anything I’d ever heard of. While skiffle musicians played the banjo or guitar, maybe a washboard or pair of spoons for percussion, “Mad” MacGullum played furniture. He’d pluck the springs of a twin bed or clap the tops of stools together. He was notoriously difficult to record, but once you heard his ottoman solos on singles like “Don’t You Shoot the Dustman, Pa” and “Pontchartrain Delight” you didn’t soon forget them.
It became the rage at the time for boys to start their own skiffle groups — and there were a few lads in Liverpool who turned that moment to their advantage! I didn’t have any such dreams of glory; I was just getting damn sick of cardboard. So Bradley and Nobby and I (Jeremy had since died expectedly) learned everything that MacGullum had ever recorded and became the Dirt Pile Boys.
Bradley became the local “King of the Couch,” which was no small feat for a boy his size. Nobby played discarded end tables he found in the rubbish heap. And I became our lead singer, with occasional accompaniment on the zurg, which was a homemade guitar-like instrument made of copper pipes and cat.
“We all looked forward to the precious hour each night of rehearsal in Nobby’s basement before lights out.”
Perhaps it’s silly to look back on this time with such breathless nostalgia, but perhaps I need to remind you that there was NOTHING to do. There was a ban on public dancing, running, and by 1961, meandering. School boys were in class by 6 in the morning, not to rise from their seats until noon for a lunch of gravel and cheese, followed by two more hours of maths. Then we were marched to the dirt mines and it was not until well after sundown when we ate our flabby piece of pork fat.
We all looked forward to the precious hour each night of rehearsal in Nobby’s basement before lights out. Like most groups on our lane, we did cover tunes of popular skiffle songs of the day. “Mary, Won’t You Cut That Thing Off,” “I’m a Muleskinner,” and of course “Stubborn Rash Blues” were constantly in the air.
When Bradley spotted the advert for a skiffle talent show at one of the local pubs, he ran home to tell us about it (naturally, he was fined for the outburst). We signed up immediately and two days later we gathered our furninstruments together and hit the stage.
We were no more terrible than everyone else, but we found a way to be voted “Last Place” in a field of five, which I thought was a little unnecessary.
What I didn’t know at the time, as I stuffed my zurg into a burlap sack, was that my future was about to present itself. As we shuffled through the sawdust and vomit to the door, I noticed a little man packing up the banjo cases of the winning band, Rory and the Blazers.
I don’t know what inspired me to ask, but for some reason I needed to know who he was and what he was doing. “I’m the road manager,” he said, as if it was the plainest thing in the world.
“Road manager? What’s that, then?” I asked.
“I make sure the band gets where it needs to go,” he said, dusting off a bit of vomit from his sleeve. “It’s my job to make sure the band’s happy.”
Suddenly something inside me sprang to life. I realized that my destiny was to be a road manager. And I knew just the band to start with.
© Will Siss 2011