I was brought up around music. My mother was a teacher and played the piano for the school assemblies. My eldest sister started to learn the violin (but didn't get very far). My cousin also played violin and keyboards and he did go quite far (and still is), playing in a few bands that had some success, as well as some well received solo recordings and compositions for film and television. But mainly there was always music being played in the house. My parents enjoyed listening to classical music and musical theatre so my childhood was filled with a soundtrack of "A Chorus Line", "My Fair Lady", "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers", etc. etc. At the same time, my eldest sister was a teenager in the early seventies and so another sort of music was often played in the house: Pink Floyd, Genesis, Mike Oldfield, Roxy Music, Curved Air, assisted by my family following my cousin's musical career.
My mother attempted several times to teach me piano, but without success. I just wasn't interested in sitting down to learn scales or 'Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star' when I could poke out a melody from ear and try to follow the music off the records and the radio. The only other musical endeavour I undertook during this period was a 'band' that my friend and I formed, having empty tins hit with mother's knitting needles as drums, a beat up old acoustic guitar (that neither of us could play) and an empty toilet roll with a ball of wool stuck in one end that to our imaginations made it a perfectly useable microphone.
Northfield School Wind Band
Shortly after moving in to secondary school, my parents thought it would be a good idea for me to start taking a more serious interest in music, as the school had a well respected music teacher, wind band and orchestra. After a short discussion, we agreed that the clarinet would be a suitable instrument for me to learn. And so, on one Saurday afternoon we made our way to Hamiltons, the large music shop in nearby Middlesbrough. We returned home with me excitedly clutching a brand new clarinet and my parents less excitedly clutching the HP agreement to pay for it!
I began having clarinet lessons at school and slowly (very slowly) progressed. After a time, the music teacher (Alan Lester) decided that I was sufficiently proficient to play in the school wind band. This used to play big band music, such as Glen Miller as well as big band arrangements of more contemporary music e.g. The Beatles (we did a particularly nice arrangement of 'Michelle'). This involved a lot of rehearsing at lunch-times and playing the school assemblies, as well as concerts in the local community. The band often entered and did well in the local competitions and we had a reputation as being one of the best school bands in the area. At one point,, Mr Lester decided that it would be a good idea for us to make a record. We managed to raise the money and so we started the various sessions to complete the record at a studio in Stockton-on-Tees.
When I received the record it had a dramatic effect on me. It sounded dreadful, just as you would expect a band of schoolkids would sound; bad timing, woefully out of tune in places and was essentially a huge disappointment. After that my heart went out of playing in the band and when, shortly after, it came time to start preparing for my O-level exams, I 'retired' from the band and put the clarinet away to gather dust.
During my final years at school I didn't really have any musical involvement whatever, other than listening to the bands of the day (I was still an avid viewer of Top of the Pops and, when possible, The Old Grey Whistle Test). When I left school I had some close friends that suddenly decided they were going to start learning instruments.  Bill got an acoustic guitar and Tony got an electric guitar. I still had the old acoustic guitar from my childhood (see above) although it had a neck like a banana, so we used to gather around each other's houses and try and play some music together. We eventually realised that three guitars was a bit limiting and so Tony and I came to an agreement. He would buy one of the new Casio keyboards, I would buy a synthesiser and I would become 'the keyboard player' as I had had a piano in the house all my life, knew a few chords and could play a few bits and pieces.
We continued to practice together and tried to write a lot of music, heavily influenced by the groups we were listening to at the time; Hawkwind, Frank Zappa, Genesis, ELP, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, etc. I eventually replaced the banana guitar with a Harmony electric guitar which, to be honest, wasn't much of an improvement. It was made of plywood and went out of tune just by staring at it. I also eventually bought a Hondo 12 string guitar and picked up a 'home organ', the sort with the chord buttons on the left hand side and which sounded like a cat playing the bagpipes in a tumble dryer.
While my friends started to find new interests and moved away from making music, I continued, bouncing tracks between cassette decks to create layered sounds, as well as slowly improving the keyboards. I joined a few local bands that rehearsed a few times but came to nothing. Finally I started playing with a group who had an excellent guitarist and drummer, but no bass. We eventually found a bass player and organised our first gig at Acklam Rugby Club in Middlesbrough. We played songs from Dire Straits, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, amongst others. While it was a fun night, it became apparent that the singer, while OK in rehearsal, was hopeless on stage, off key, timing, etc. There was an after-show discussion and while the intention was to carry on and find another singer, the band fell apart after only a few more rehearsals.
Several years later, a colleague of my mother contacted me as her son-in-law was starting a band and was looking for a keyboard player. We met up and began rehearsing. After a short while we got the opportunity to play a gig supporting a local rock band. They went to the school where we rehearsed (just kids, bless 'em) and the concert was in the school hall. When we turned up on the evening, it turned out they had decided to hire a huge P.A. The shool hall wasn't that big and during the soundcheck, the sound was bouncing around, making it impossible to hear anything other than noise, either on the stage or in the audience. I hoped that when people came to fill the hall, they would improve the acoustic sufficiently to make it bearable. Sadly, I was being optimistic. I had my keyboard amplifier directly behind me, which comprised a Peavey XR400 mixer/amplifier and an Ohm speaker stack, 1 speaker with horn and bullet tweeters and a 15" woofer, the other speaker below it an additional 15" woofer. With all the sound rebounding back from the PA I couldn't hear my stack at all, or any of the other guys in the band. I played the entire gig keeping time by watching the bass player tap his foot. We were just about to start playing 'Badge' by Cream and the guitarist walked over to me, saying he couldn't remember the solo and I would have to play it. So not only could I not hear a thing, I had to improvise a solo on a song I'd only ever previously played a simple chord backing on. Needless to say, the solo would not go down as being one of my best!
To be continued....
The next instalment will include Howz Trix and Northern Broadcast