Wednesday 7th December

Reg confused about returning delta-jazzman (8)

The plans for next summer’s Clones in the Park festival are coming along surprisingly well. The University Parks Authority has proved oddly willing to countenance the overall concept and, subject to various boxes being ticked, the cricket square remaining unviolated and assorted Elf & Safety hoops being jumped through, it looks like we’ve got the free run of a big chunk of land towards the far end of the Parks, where Parson’s Pleasure used to be. Even more surprisingly, the imaginatively-named 21st Century Schizoid Men band-members seem happy to go along with the idea and share the set-up costs, despite the fact that we’ll be insisting on top billing. No doubt they’ll be expecting to blow us away as comprehensively as their predecessors did.

And we’ve tracked down another tribute band from Leicester called Family Bandstand who, somewhat predictably, aim to recreate Roger Chapman & co’s prog-psychedelic sounds, warbling note for note. We’ve held off from giving them a definite “yes” because there’s still an outside chance we can persuade the real Family (or what’s left of them now that Ric Grech and various other founding members are dead) to come up for the day. It wouldn’t be the first Family reunion, after all.

The Clones have stepped up the rehearsals and there have even been a few moments when it’s all come together and, for a couple of bars at least, we have actually sounded something like the band we’re trying to imitate. Some would say that you can’t go too far wrong with a song like ‘Satisfaction’ built entirely on a three-note guitar riff – three consecutive notes at that – but the rhythm attack has to be spot on. Rick the drummer and I are getting there. ‘Loving Cup’ is a little harder to master, especially if you aim for the sound the Stones got on Exile on Main Street. But Hyde Park was three years earlier than that and the version they played in 1969 was pretty rudimentary – well, that will be our excuse anyway. Phil has just about nailed the syncopations of ‘Street Fighting Man’ and is working on his strutting-about-the-stage-like-a-headless-chicken skills.

Anyone can sound semi-competent in the privacy of their own back bedroom. The acid test comes when you’ve got a bunch of tanked-up punters in front of you, especially in a city like Oxford where the town/gown divide is still as pronounced as ever. So we are all just a little apprehensive as we tune up our instruments and plug in our amps for our debut outing at the Bullingdon Arms. Yes, the Bully, the graveyard of many an aspiring lad-band in the badlands of East Oxford. I’ve heckled a few garage rock outfits here in my time, so I do have a fair idea what to expect.

Rick is good mates with a chap called Big Dave who is well in at the Bully – well enough in to set up a gig like this, anyway – and Big Dave has let us use some of his toys, notably a dry ice unit. That should give the gig some “atmosphere”, we figure, although we may be asphyxiated in the process.

But by the time we are a couple of numbers into our set (“Jumping Jack Flash, it’s a gas, gas, gas …” – an ecstasy of fumbling), the smog is so thick that we can barely see our own instruments, never mind our putative audience. I reflect that we really need to include ‘Get Off of My Cloud’ in our set-list if we are to exploit the situation’s full comic potential.

None of us has any idea how to turn the dry ice machine off and Big Dave seems to have left the building. I try to disperse the altostratus between riffs with a modicum of success and it appears that the pub is now completely empty! All four of the punters who had been huddled round the bar at the beginning of the set have evidently remembered that MasterChef is on TV.

No matter, a scruffy-looking youth and his whey-faced anorexic girlfriend (or boyfriend, it’s hard to tell) have just wandered in through the Saloon Bar door and are in the process of purchasing an intoxicating drink or two. It’s only 8.45 so one presumes that it’s a little early for most of the regulars. I catch a glimpse of Phil hardly going through the motions. It is clear he will need to work on his satanic majesty. Don McLean might well see this as the day the music died, but not for quite the same reasons. To be fair, though, it is not easy to strut your stuff on a stage that’s barely big enough for a one-man-band when there are four others (and Rick’s drum-kit) to squeeze in.

Halfway through our error-strewn performance of ‘Mercy, Mercy’, Big Dave re-emerges from the Gents looking particularly pleased with himself. One can only speculate on the cause of his satisfaction but his brow furrows slightly as he spots the accumulated cumuli. It’s a long way down to the floor for Big Dave but after a few moments of heavy breathing and incipient angina, he has successfully de-iced the show. Meanwhile, the oik in the leather jacket and his skeletal girlfriend have settled at the pub’s most distant table and the girlfriend is attempting to shout something in her partner’s ear above the racket we are making. She does not look happy.

Rick lays down a steady hi-hat and we launch into the sub-Velvet Underground sound of ‘Stray Cat Blues’. Even a stray cat would be welcome at the door right now. Clint, the landlord, is yawning and staring at his watch – have we established a new world record for the lowest ever attendance at the Bully? Mr Leather Jacket has gone back to the bar for a fresh draught of absinthe. No, on second thoughts, he doesn’t want another drink, he’s trying to pick a fight with Clint. Clint raises his hands submissively, as if apologising for some omission. I concentrate on an air of Wymanesque insouciance.

‘Stray Cat Blues’ rumbles to a close and Stig is busy re-tuning his guitar for ‘No Expectations’ when Clint ambles over towards the band.

“Twenty quid?” he suggests.

“It’s all right, mate” says Phil. “We’re not expecting to be paid. I can see we haven’t exactly drawn in a big crowd for you.”

“No, mate. I’m offering you twenty quid to stop. You are disturbing the clientele.”

“What, that bloke in the corner?”

“Yes, Gary doesn’t like anything before McFly,” he shrugs. We all chuckle sympathetically. “Twenty quid and a drink each?”

Phil pretends to consider the offer before conceding gracefully. We are now officially a semi-professional band. Even Radiohead probably weren’t this successful, this early, on the mean streets of Abingdon.

So, there we are, unplugging the amps and supping the almost drinkable guest ale when who should come in from off the Cowley Road but my father! Behind him, a tall, balding boke with a thick, grey moustache also makes his way in from the cold. Beneath their overcoats, I can see that they are wearing DJs and dickie-bows, not quite the usual dress code for the Bullingdon Arms. They must have come straight from the gaudy at Univ.

My father joins us in our allotted corner and the other man hangs back a little.

“Is it just about to start?” Dad asks.

“Er, not quite,” I tell him. “We’ve actually just finished.”

“Finished? But it’s barely nine o’clock! That’s a bit of a blow …”

“Maybe another time. Look, I really appreciate …”

“It’s just that I’ve brought Mike with me …”

“Mike? Do I know Mike?”

“We talked about him the other day. You remember? Mike Ratledge.”

“Mike Ratledge?”

“Yes, we got chatting at the gaudy, as you do, and I just happened to let slip that my son was playing in a Stones tribute band. The speeches were a bit dull so we decided to nip over and see how you were getting on …”

But by now the band has dropped all its instruments in a pile and are jostling for position in front of the great man – all except Rick, for whom Soft Machine are no more than a (slightly puzzling) name from music pre-history. This balding figure does not bear any obvious resemblance to the hippy in shades who once did as much as anyone to “fuse” jazz and rock. But he seems happy enough to play along with the situation, shaking hands firmly with each of us in turn. Phil, who has purloined the twenty quid, is first to the bar to get the former keyboard maestro a drink and (as a bit of an afterthought) one for my father as well. The landlord double-checks that we have absolutely no intention of restarting the gig before pulling a couple of pints and we all settle down for an uneasy chat.

“These boys are all associated with Univ in some way,” Dad explains. “Phil here is an English don, just as Alex hoped to be …”

“Hardly!” I lie.

“ …and Oswald teaches English as well. And Rick there …”

“ … is just a bouncer on the door,” Rick explains cheerily. “But anyone with a drum-kit can transcend the class barrier.”

“That’s only because drummers peg out periodically,” Phil insists. “Rick’s our third drummer this year. A bizarre gardening accident waiting to happen.”

“We had a guy called Robert Wyatt on percussion in the early years,” our distinguished guest observes diffidently. We all nod knowledgeably as if his every drum-fill is etched on our musical mindscapes. “If you wanted someone to lay down a steady four-four beat, Wyatt was not your man.”

“Rick can’t count that far so we prefer songs in waltz-time, as a rule,” Phil quips.

We all laugh dutifully and stare into what’s left of our pints.

“So when were you up at Univ, Mr Ratledge?” Ozzie asks.

“Sixty-three to sixty-six,” he sighs. “God, is it really fifty years since they kicked us out, Reg?  Actually, it was a bit of a toss-up whether I stayed in academe or went off and joined Soft Machine. How could I have got that one so wrong?”

This time the laughter is a lot less inhibited. Mike Ratledge seems like one cool dude.

“Pardon my ignorance,” says Rick.  “But are Soft Machine alive and well?”

“The Softs played a gig up in Belper last week but I’m not part of the band any more. Playing your heart out for three men and a dog becomes less attractive when you turn seventy.”

None of us has the heart to ask where Belper is.

“Did you know Mick Jagger at all?” Phil asks.

“Did I know Mick Jagger? Did I know Mick Jagger?” He pauses briefly to place his tankard on the table. “Our lives overlapped in so many ways. We were born a few weeks apart in Summer ’43, me in Maidstone, him a few miles up the A2 in Dartford. Both christened ‘Michael’, like most of our generation. Grammar school boys, both a bit thin and weedy, similar A-levels, both chased after the same girls, no doubt. I got into Oxford; he didn’t. I think he’s always had a bit of a chip on his shoulder about that. LSE was OK, I imagine, but it wasn’t quite Oxbridge, was it? My folks made sure I had piano lessons, flute lessons, the lot. Not sure whether young Michael Jagger learned an instrument at all. I guess he made up for it in sheer chutzpah!”

“Yes, that’s the bit I’m finding hardest,’ Phil admits. ‘Mick Jagger was – is – one heck of a front man.”

“Yeah, credit where it’s due, I guess. As we speak, he’s in a maternity ward awaiting the birth of his eighth child while the Stones’ new album, Blue & Lonesome, is top of the charts. Such energy! Making a cup of tea is hard enough work for me these days. Anyway, after university, we both went off and formed our bands and bumped into each other on the London scene. And then I got married!”

He looks at us all as if this was the most extraordinary point in his narrative. We wait patiently for him to explain the significance of this momentous event.

“I married this wild American singer-actress called Marsha Hunt.”

Most of us continue to look suitably blank.

“Mick Jagger’s ex, you mean?” Ozzie chips in.

“She wasn’t Mick Jagger’s ex in those days – she hadn’t even met Mick Jagger. This was 1967. Marsha’s career was just taking off and she landed this job on a new stage-musical called Hair. It was her Afro which featured on all the posters for the show and suddenly my wife was the hottest girl in London. Everyone wanted a piece of Marsha. She was a lovely lass but it didn’t half put a strain on our relationship …”

We nod sympathetically. Being part of Soft Machine and sharing a bed with Marsha Hunt must have been pure hell back in ’68.

“And then she met the boy with the big lips from Dartford. The Stones were pretty huge by now while the Softs were playing to rather more of a niche market, shall we say? Mick Jagger had seen the posters, seen Hair, and he wanted the girl behind the hair.”

“Wasn’t he already paired off with Marianne Faithfull?” I suggest.

“Indeed so. But Mick was never the most monogamous of individuals, was he? What Mick wants, he gets.”

“So it was Mick and Marianne, Mike and Marsha … did you think of getting sponsorship from M & Ms?”

“Thanks for that observation, Reg; no, we didn’t. Anyway, it all came to a head round about the time of the Hyde Park show in July ’69.”

“The show we’re trying to recreate,” Phil says.

“Indeed. As long as you’ve mastered all three chords, you should be OK. Earlier that week in ’69, I finished a short tour with the Softs and got back to London a bit earlier than I expected. I thought I’d surprise Marsha at the Shaftesbury after the evening show and I arrived at the stage door just in time to bump into her leaving, hand in hand with the aforementioned Mr Jagger. I think it’s fair to say that a few strong words were exchanged …”

“You didn’t smack him one?” Rick enquires. “Sounds like someone had been shafted at the Shaftesbury.”

“No, we were all jolly English about the whole thing. I made a gentle enquiry as to what the **** was going on and Mick assured me that “they were just going for a quiet drink, man.” Man? I was feeling pretty unmanned by this stage. I suggested to Marsha that I’d see her back at the flat at a certain hour but I could tell by the look in her eyes that I’d lost this particular game. Marsha went off with Mick and I didn’t see her again till after Hyde Park. I entertained various murderous thoughts, but did absolutely nothing.”

“Was that it for you and Marsha?”

“No, but it was the end of the beginning of the end of our marriage. Marsha was completely infatuated. Mick and Marianne went off to Australia for the filming of Ned Kelly but I know he wrote to Marsha every day. In the space of four or five days, Brian Jones drowned, the Stones played the biggest gig England had ever seen and Marianne Faithfull took an overdose of sleeping pills in Sydney. Mick realised just in time what she’d done, just as he had with Chrissie Shrimpton, his first girlfriend.’

‘She nearly topped herself as well?” Rick suggests cheerfully.

“Yup. A shame Mick was back in Australia when L’Wren Scott finally lost hope of being a wife and mother or perhaps he’d have saved her too. But July ’69 was a pretty intense period for all of them. The memory remains…”

“Metallica, right? Venus in furs’ finest hour?” Ozzie always likes to show off his erudition. Mike nods appreciatively.

“Even with Marianne touch and go in some hospital, Jagger was still writing love letters to my wife – serves him right that she put them up for auction all those years later.”

“The price of free love?”

“The times were wilder than we were, I’d say. Marianne wasn’t the only masochist involved. But je ne regrette rien. And I’m still in touch with Marsha. She thinks we should renew our vows. Hey, can I get you another drink, boys?”

It turns out that this is Mike Ratledge’s way of gently terminating his tête-a-tête with this particular bunch of musical impostors. Soon he and my Dad slope off back to Univ, confident that the speeches will be over and there will be some postprandial sherries in the SCR.

Nonetheless, a  night to remember!  But tomorrow will surely be more momentous still …


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