In the Beginning…

1958 to 1968

The Beacon and the Marsden Inn, South Shields 

My revolutionary pal, Terry Kelly, introduced me to the folk world ‘every Friday at 8’ at The Beacon in South Shields.  I think we were just 18.  The club was run by South Shields Young Socialists and CND.  Membership was expensive at 6d.

In a matter of weeks, I started going to the Marsden Inn where the club was run by the Marsden Rattlers.  One of the rattlers was Jim Bainbridge and I was to meet him again at Strawberry Hill where he ran the folk club before me.  I remember Johnny Handle telling me off at The Marsden for playing a guitar then playing his home made four string guitar to accompany himself.  Johnny was a big name in the north east and ran The Bridge Folk Club in Newcastle. I probably sang an American song which would have annoyed all of them.

Busking in France

I visited Paris for the first time in 1962, I was 17. A couple of enlightened teachers arranged the ‘school journey’. It’s a surprise to write ‘enlightened’ because my school was not known for being enlightened about anything. Fascist, yes, Despotic, yes, but illuminating didn’t normally happen.

For some reason Terry Kelly and I had taken our guitars and one evening we were taken to the student quarter, the Boulevard St Michel. The bright lights of the restaurants shone on the group as we blocked much of the pavement and sang the pop songs of the day. We made a few bob because one of our number, John Grey, hit on the idea of taking a cap around.

Four years later, I was back in the same spot busking for real with my flat mate Alan Starr.  Alan and I would catch a train up from Tours where we were students at the Institut de Touraine and head for the Hotel Medici in the rue St Jacques. According to one website I have just looked at, the Hotel Medici was as low down the ratings as you could get on Lonely Planet without being unmentionable.  We were okay with the place.  Yes, it was a fleapit but that was okay.  We’d go out on the Friday night, Saturday lunchtime and evening, and maybe Sunday lunchtime, sing Beatles songs and earn enough money for the return train journey, a room in the fleapit, our food for the weekend and a few extras during the week back in Tours. Everybody loved the Beatles and we were bang up to date with their latest.  Couldn’t lose.

I remember a short man standing directly in front of us, three piece suit, serious unchanging  unsmiling expression, at least twice our age.  He was there for about fifteen minutes, in the front row as the crowd built up. Finally, he pulled some kind of medallion from his waistcoat pocket.

‘Sureté, Messieurs. Vous avez cinq minutes.’

Looking back on it now, I was part of a new wave of buskers.  Previous to our time, busking was pretty well akin to begging.  It was the preserve of war victims.  We didn’t feel like beggars, we felt like sharers earning a few bob.  Our busking was for the hell of it, for the enjoyment.  It was very valuable performance experience for a shy lad like me who would always be found in the kitchen at parties.

It certainly seemed in the few years that came next people who had been Buskers had a certain caché that mere pretty boy/pretty girl duos with cut glass accents didn’t have.

Come on Baby, Light my fire

Alan and I spent a few weekends busking.  I am in Paris now writing this, having coffee and a croissant and later I am going to see if the Hotel Medici is still on St Jacques. It’s just struck me that Ralph McTell was probably in Paris at about the same time.  He played guitar off stage beefing up the star on stage who couldn’t play very well.  Not many years later, we were all blown away on first hearing Streets of London but I’ve always thought Nana’s Song with its Paris Moon  and Paris Stars is better.  Someone told me recently that Streets of London was originally written as Streets of Paris.  I’l check that one out.

So today, I visited the Hotel Medici for the first time in 50 years.  It is still there but it’s not called the Hotel Medici any more.  The young lady on the desk said that she had many visitors of ‘your kind of age’ who came in enquiring.  She told me that It hadn’t been called the Medici since ‘ancien’ times.

In 1966, a room cost 12 or 15 francs a night, at around 10 francs to the pound.  Not any more.

According to 5 minutes research on the web, the Medici was gutted in 2008/2009.  The young lady’s understanding of ‘ancien’ is not the same as mine but 10 years is probably a touch more than a third of a lifetime for her and there was me talking to her about a time 50 years before.  Grandpa or what!

I saw that rooms are now at eye watering, mind boggling prices but then she threw me even more than that.

There came a surprise, a Parisienne was about to be helpful!

I saw that rooms are now at eye watering, mind boggling prices but she threw me even more than that.  To my surprise, a Parisienne was about  to be helpful!

‘Let me show you something,’ she said and got up from her desk.  She took me outside to a very discreet plaque on the front wall.  I would never have noticed it.  You can see it in the hotel frontage photo above just above what looks like a meter cupboard in the bottom left hand corner. The plaque is not well kept but it says;Jim Morrison of the Doors lived in the Medici for a couple of weeks not long before he died.  I was there in 1966, Morrison in 1971.  No, of course we didn’t meet!  Morrison is buried in Pére Lachaise cemetery in Paris.  I still haven’t met him.

Strawberry Hill

Me, Roger Sutcliffe and Dick Stevenson from Bradford, and Tim Shepherd from Clithero ran the Folk Club at Strawberry Hill i.e. St Mary’s College Twickenham.  Whilst the previous regime under Jim Bainbridge and others was very traditional, our club took a while to find its feet relying on the varying tastes of the residents and our student floor singers.  Initially, our direction was largely formed by Roger who knew more about folk clubs than the rest of us.  Through him we began to book people like Maddy Prior, Dave and Toni Arthur and the off-the-wall funny Stan Boardman .

I became involved pretty well against my will.  Traditional folk music was not my thing but I realised that we were allowed to change things and we expanded the initial list of performers to include the likes of Bert Jansch, John Renbourne, and most importantly Hamish Imlach.

Hamish was a great laugh and a super performer.  One night he brought with him a young lad (he was 17, we were 20!) and said ‘Give him a decent spot.  He’s good’.  So we did and were blown away by a genius.  We booked him for the major Rag Week concert of the year which was to happen only a few days later.

Thus I met John Martyn for the first time.  We were probably the first club in the south of England to book John and I worked with him many times after that.  The Rag Week Concert which for me starred John Martyn was headlined by Bert Jansch and John Renbourne.  There was also a brilliant blues singer we had met a couple of weeks previously called Joe Banks.  He had come along with Alex Campbell to a gig at the Crown in Twickenham.  I always enjoyed Alex Campbell but we booked Joe Banks!  I never saw Joe again, but I followed his advice.  He told me ‘Just sing yourself, kid.  Don’t try to be anybody else.  Sing it YOUR way!’  I think I still do.

This was a time when you’d meet people like Jackson C. Frank in the street.  They would drop by for a floor spot in the local clubs.  Jackson was a nice guy and lived for a while in a house near Twickenham station with some students from Maria Grey College.  ‘Take a trip to England, baby’… and he could take a train to the London clubs too.