Living Next Door to the Blenheim

Regular visitors to this blog may have noticed a certain hiatus in its usual crisp sequence of posts every other day. Normal service may resume but I’m not sure I can promise it. The reason is a particularly hectic weekend when I caught up with friends on contiguous nights, guided out to Bass Rock on the last Saturday of the SSC trips out there and was confronted with a piece of history in which I had not choice but to participate.

Now that I no longer chair East Lothian’s Licensing Board (nor am I even a member) I can come clean about a dirty little secret that friends have been good enough not to shop me for. The story starts ‘way back in the innocent days of the early sixties. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

Like most small-town adolescent males, I spent 1963 desperately trying to impress girls but failing miserably. At the time, I blamed the fact that 5th year rugby gorillas drove cars and therefore could sweep the babes in my year off their feet. I now see that hormone-induced acne and raging mood swings and the thinness of wallet and/or cool sustainable by a paper round might have played their respective parts.

The answer, with rock belting out the radio and girls swooning before the stage at the local dance hall, was obvious: get in a band. The first iteration didn’t work too well. All of our mothers turned us out scrubbed and we were about as earthily proficient in the Gene Simmons school of profanity and tongue leers as the Vienna Boys’ Choir. Plenty rock, plenty gigs, even some money; but no babes.

Before leaving school, I’d worked out that the formula was wrong. The acne was gone but the mood swings were still there and rock cool now had to be Stones-like or Who-esque, although my freckles were never going to let me aspire to be Hendrix-some. So, when the rival local band who had a raunchy lead singer, wildly plugging bass, more feedback-screaming lead guitar than the wimpy amps of my old band could dream of asked if I’d join them for a tour, I said ‘yes’ before I thought about it.

Because the ‘tour’ was all in Milton’s head. He’d bamboozled three of the band (Spike, Mick & Bert) to join him in traveling to Majorca to make a bundle playing for sun-and-sangria-loving tourists. But Walter the drummer had a good gig as a housepainter and wanted none of it. So, early July 1967, a red Thames van with all our gear and the five of us headed down the A1 towards fame & fortune.

Before we’d even got to London, Milton broke it to us that we didn’t have any gigs in Majorca yet. But he’d been at Farnham College of Art that year and knew a pad near there we could crash at while we went up to London, saw some agents and sorted all that out. After being laughed out of several agencies, it wasn’t even Shaftesbury Avenue but Turnham Green where we finally capitulated to one who suggested we just play some gigs around London.

So we did. And though we played the Angel, it was in Edmunton, not Islington and that summer we never even got a sniff of the Marquee, Bag of Nails—let alone the Crawdaddy Club where the Beatles met the Stones. Still, it was a summer I’ll never forget—working out how to live like a hippy, sleeping till noon, playing a crude squash variant in the garden, seducing the dollybird daughters of Farnham stockbrokers—all (unknown to us) in parallel with the Haight-Ashbury summer of love going on at the same time.

Milton and Mick composed songs on an old pedal organ one of the art-student roomies had; we got better as musicians; made demo records to peddle round other agencies; gigs got further afield—from family caravan sites in Pembroke to gloomy working men’s clubs in Sheffield to camp psychedelic clubs ahead of their time in Colchester. But that was about as close to the Continent as we ever got.

By the end of the summer, both repertoire and playing were much tighter but I had a dilemma. Second year at uni started in mid-October. Despite the bird-pulling power of a tight band in tight flares, I hitchhiked back north to reality.

They did fine without me—got a better drummer who was really into the lifestyle and not just dabbling like me. They were good enough to turn professional, get better equipment and the sine qua non of professionals: a Ford Transit van with aircraft seats. A couple of summers I visited, sat in, was mildly jealous, especially when they had tours to Denmark and Germany. What I didn’t know is they starved and froze much as the Beatles had done in Hamburg seven years earlier.

Eventually it dawned that they were good and could get good gigs—but always as warmup; none of the songs they wrote interested recording studios; although they had offers as individual session musicians that wasn’t why they were there. So after three years—right around the time the Beatles split in 1970—they called it a day and went their separate ways.

Milton went back to Scotland, taking over his dad’s hotel business; Mick went to California, still with some dreams; Bert wound up in Tromso(?!); Spike settled down and used his patter to get into advertising in Fleet Street in the days that was the centre of the print universe. And that, as the storyteller has it, was that.

Except it wasn’t. After a few years, Mick, now trained as a nurse, came back home. Within a year, another band is touring Fife and the Lothians, featuring him and Milton. But now they’re both married with jobs and so obligations soon ratchet it back to just playing in Milton’s pub each weekend with a succession of young local guitarists and drum machines filling in for the absent members.

By the nineties, Milton had moved back into hotels, buying the Blenheim House Hotel in North Berwick’s Westgate, which is where I found him on my own return from the States. Soon there were a series of New Years Day parties, 40th/50th birthdays, receptions, wakes, anything was an excuse for a gig, fill the lounge with a heady mix of friends and rock’n’roll. This went on for years, with Bert arriving back a decade ago and Spike often making the trip up to sit in. But it couldn’t last.

With all of us pushing retirement age, Milton decided to hang up both his bar peeny and his guitars after one last summer season. And so it was that, 45 years on from our first (and some claim only) rehearsal, his Westgate neighbours were deafened for the last time by a six-hour stint of various guest performances, as well as of the old band. High point for me was when Milton (as is his wont) ad libbed new words to a song—in this case “Living Next Door to Alice” in which he sang apologies to his long-suffering neighbours who for twenty-four years have been living next door to the Blenheim.

Though I’m sad it has all now ended, I’m also relieved: I always had visions of us being in the middle of tearing the place down with “I Saw Her Standing There” or “All Right Now” when the polis arrive to complain—and there’s me, Convener of the Licensing Board giein’ it laldy at the epicentre of it all.

Blenheim Final Gig, October 7th 2012: Spike (lead); usurper (my drums); Bert (bass); Mick (vocals); Milton (rhythm)

About davidsberry

Local councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Stood for the Scottish Parliament 2011; lost by 151 votes.
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One Response to Living Next Door to the Blenheim

  1. Great story – but I bet it’s not finished yet

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