Saturday, 12 December 2015

25 years ago....

As I write this it is the 25th anniversary of my first Woking game. I know this because the game is famous amongst Woking fans. It was the second round of the 1990/91 FA Cup and the mighty Merthyr Tydfil were coming to Kingfield. When I say ‘mighty’ I mean that they were in the Conference and Woking were a division below. I went to the game on my own, at the last minute. I had a friend who went to games, home and away, but I decided on the morning of the game to go, quietly, on my own. The ground was packed with over 4,000 fans, a huge crowd for Woking, who normally saw just a few hundred hardy souls come through the turnstiles. I stood on the terracing on what I later found out was Moaner’s Corner, a section of the ground that usually contained more mature, embittered, long suffering fans. The terracing was so full that it was difficult to keep your footing sometimes. I found myself a spot just up from the corner flag. The day was cold with a sky so low and leaden that you would swear you’d crack your head on it if you jumped too high. I have watched the highlights of the game just recently and had forgotten two things. I had forgotten what a fantastic noise there was in that tight, slightly tatty little ground. And I had forgotten what a terrific, ball-playing side Woking were. Later, in the golden era when we won the FA Trophy at Wembley 3 seasons out of 4, and Clive Walker was in his pomp, we played some wonderful stuff and were great to watch. I had always had that later side, the Conference team, in my mind’s eye, drooling over Walker’s jinking runs and his wonderful goals. But the highlights from the 8th December 1990 are of a really good side, a team of part timers who had played together for years, and who had a little genius in midfield.

Mark Biggins was from Middlesbrough. I don’t mean the football club, just the town. He was 27 years old in 1990 and had been at Woking for 3 years. His fee from Windsor & Eton had been £2,000. He never played League football, spending all of his career in the lower leagues with clubs like Feltham, Maidenhead United, Harrow and Hampton.
And Woking.

Woking fans loved him. Biggo was small, wiry and could turn the big, lumbering defenders in the Isthmian League inside out. I had never seen him before that day but I instantly fell in love with him. How could you not? To be fair, the game turned out to be his crowning glory in a Woking shirt. He had many great games after it, influenced big results, scored a few terrific goals. But, on this day, the 8th December 1990, he was playing a type of football that would have graced White Hart Lane, Old Trafford or Anfield. He was that good.

Merthyr Tydfil were having a poor run in the Conference. Woking had already beaten 3 other Conference sides in the earlier rounds of that season’s FA Cup, so an upset was, as they say, on the cards. Woking full back, Lloyd Wye, scored the first goal, a great header from a cross by his brother, Shane. Biggo scored the second, a scruffy, deflected shot into the corner of the Merthyr goal. Woking went into half-time 2-0 up. Tim Buzaglo, whose father had taught me History at school, got a 3rd goal and, shortly after, was fouled by Merthyr’s Williams, who was sent off. Biggo got the 4th, after another flowing move, before Merthyr got what was surely just a consolation goal. Merthyr had another player sent off, for a terrible foul on Shane Wye, and the game was over as a contest. But it wasn’t over as a spectacle. Biggo’s hat trick came with a shot from 25 yards out, curled around a defender, into the top corner of the Merthyr goal. He just turned away, applauding, as his team mates surrounded him.

With just moments to go in the game, the ball dribbled off the pitch, right in front of me. Woking were 5-1 up and Biggo had 3 of them.
Mark Biggins trudged over to take the throw-in, with that distinctive bow legged gait, and bent down to pick up the ball. As he did so, a huge voice from the terrace behind me, boomed out.
“Pull your finger out, Biggo. You’ve done fuck all today.”
Mark looked up, ball in hand, searching for the owner of the voice. For a second his face was wracked with pain, scowling. But the few hundred adoring fans in front of him were roaring laughing and, a second later, so was Mark. He stood looking at us, just for 2 or 3 seconds, as we applauded, sang, cheered, no, screamed his name, “Biggo, Biggo, Biggo…” He shook his head, as if he couldn’t quite believe what had happened in the past 100 minutes, and turned to take the throw. On the way home, I thought about gigs, playing in the band, girlfriends, even the birth of my daughter. I couldn’t remember being happier.

Here's the highlights of the 2nd half. Biggo's 3rd is just after 6 mins.

Here is Mark, in the worst Woking shirt in the history of the club (We're called the Cards for a reason. Because the shirt has Cardinal Red in it. Not salmon bloody pink!)

Sunday, 16 August 2015

It's just music, isn't it?

'Music was my first love,
And it will be my last.' 

No, wait. Come back!

My life has been wrapped up in music, for as long as I can remember. Like a comfort blanket, music has soothed me, calmed me. Like an electric shock, live music has excited me, thrilled me. For 44 years.

The greatest live gig I ever saw was on 29th May 1981, Wembley Arena. Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band brought The River tour to London. I stood on my seat, at the start of Thunder Road, as an audience, largely unfamiliar with the song, sat down. I screamed every word, oblivious to the steward at the end of the aisle, angrily gesturing for me to sit down. "Show a little faith, there's magic in the night," nearly burst my lungs.

Twenty two days later, my Dad died.

That gig, 34 years ago, has beaten off all competition, time and time again. Hundreds of gigs have tried, many have come close (another Springsteen gig, in Cardiff, came closest) but none have defeated that night in North London.

Until now.

Big Big Train are an odd band. In one way, they are a throwback. They sound like early Genesis, remind me of early Yes. They sing songs, some long, about miners, and communities, and trains, and history. 

And England. Always England. 

In another way, they are thoroughly modern. Self sufficient, active on the internet and social media, with some of them in other bands too, they represent the modern rock band. Independent. All about the fans, their own community.

They have been going for 25 years, although you can be forgiven for never having heard of them. Like many bands, they operate on the fringes, releasing new music themselves, without a record company, but not playing live. 

They haven't played to a live audience for 17 years.

Until last Friday night.

Yes have been going for 47 years. Twenty different musicians have been in the five-piece during that time, through thousands of gigs.
Chris Squire has played bass at every Yes gig. Until last week. Chris died from  leukaemia a few weeks ago and the band performed for the first time, without him, in America, last week. At the start of the gig, the house lights went down, the audience roared, and one of Chris's songs played over the P.A. In the darkness, Chris's roadie carried his white Rickenbacker bass guitar onstage and rested it in his stand. A single spotlight lit it, as the song concluded. Class. Yes are a class act.

Someone knocked on my front door. It was early evening and I was ready to leave for London, for the Big Big Train gig. I was both excited and tense. Packing after work, when I'm on a deadline, is always tense. I opened the door to find the postman, grinning. 
"Too big," he said, as he handed me an envelope. I thanked him and shut the door, confused and conscious of the time. I opened the cardboard envelope. Chris Squire's young face looked up at me, from the cover of August's copy of Prog magazine. I'd forgotten I'd ordered it. Yes were the reason I got into Prog. I hate the term but it defines a group of bands. Yes were my entry into Genesis, King Crimson, Moody Blues and, eventually, Rush. So, having this tribute issue of the magazine to take with me, to see my favourite Prog, my favourite band in the world, seemed so appropriate.

I had Chris with me. It was a sign.

Jan & I walked down to the station, for our train into London. Janet was coming with me, but not to the gig. She loves one particular BBT song, but, as an 80's music fan, she has no love for 18 minute songs about trains. I had bought her a ticket to Les Mis, a musical that we both love. Waiting on the platform for the train to arrive from Reading, I was aware that a gentleman standing next to me had a camera out and was looking down the tracks, towards London. Suddenly, there it was. Incredibly, a steam train thundered, nay blasted it's way through our little village station. It was another sign. A Big Big Train.

I'm really shy, painfully shy. Always have been. Walking into a room full of people I don't know fills me with terror. So, riding down the escalator at King's Place was terrifying. Below? Just loads of fellow fans of Big Big Train. Passengers, they are called, on their Facebook page. The fact that I knew many of their names, even their faces from their online photos, made no difference. I was terrified. However, at the bottom of the escalator was a gig. By my favourite band. Deep breath. You'll be fine.

The audience made the gig. Of course there is no gig without the band, but the audience made this gig. The roar at the end of the first song was nothing short of epic. After that, it just kept getting better. How can a group of eight musicians (plus a brass section) make me cry, make me weep at the sheer beauty of their art? 

Music, that's how. 

So, is this the best gig I've ever seen? I really think it is. Bruce in ’81 is clouded by my Dad's death, which has cemented it as a celebration in a traumatic time. This had no such baggage. The quality of musicianship was simply stunning. Amazing players, not earning much money, playing for the sheer joy of the music. It was just joyful. Truly, full of joy.

On both sides of the stage. 

"Music was my first love......"

Sunday, 31 May 2015

A Day To Remember

This is an important photograph. Not to you, obviously. But to us, it means the world. It was taken on Saturday 30th May 2015 at around 11am. Exactly fifteen years earlier, Jan & I stood in this exact spot, the morning after our wedding. Let me set the scene for you.

We were married in the Compleat Angler Hotel, Marlow, on 29th May 2000. After the ceremony, we had a drinks reception on the lawn, right beside the River Thames. The main reception was to be on a Thames Cruiser, which came up from Maidenhead and picked us all up at the hotel, before sailing up to Henley and back, during the evening. That part nearly didn't happen. It had rained for 4 days solid before the 29th - so much rain that we got a call from the Captain of the Cruiser, the day before, to say that the river was running so high that he might not be able to get under the bridges. Luckily, on the big day, the sun came out, the ship sailed, and the good Captain only scrapped his roof a few times.

The next morning, we met everyone that had stayed at the hotel, for breakfast. Quietly, after an hour, Jan and I slipped away, walked through the hotel car park, and up onto the lovely Marlow Bridge. We held hands, kissed, and then threw our old wedding rings into The Thames. We hugged. It was something we had planned just a few days before. We didn't tell anyone. It was our moment, something special that signified a new life together, a new beginning, a new love.

So, exactly 15 years later, pretty much to the minute, we took this photo, on the bridge, above The Thames. We held hands and hugged, the morning after our 15th anniversary. It has been the fastest 15 years of our lives, the years racing by, especially as we enjoy the rewards of the hard work we both put into our jobs. We have a great life. We have so much fun.

Most importantly, we have each other.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

God looks like Leland Sklar.

         This is going to take some explaining so, pull up a chair, pour yourself a drink and I shall begin.
Leland Sklar is a 67 year old bass player. Any musicians amongst you will know what a ridiculously inadequate statement that is. Lee Sklar is one of the most recorded bassists in music history. He has appeared on more than 2,000 albums. I won't list them all here but if I tell you that he is on all of the classic James Taylor and Carole King albums, Jackson Browne's most famous early albums and albums by Ray Charles, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Phil Collins, Joe Cocker, Billy Cobham, Neil Diamond, Hall & Oates, Toto and Barbra Streisand, to name but a handful, you'll get the picture. Lee Sklar is Mr. Bass. I have seen him play, some years ago, on a Toto tour, shortly after Mike Porcaro first displayed signs of the horrible muscular disease that eventually took his life, last month. Lee got the call, had just two days to learn the set-list, and looked like he'd been in the band for 20 years.

           Lee's rhythm partner for much of his career has been Russell Kunkel. Russ & Lee were the foundation of The Section, the band that backed James Taylor and Carole King on those iconic songs that were the markers in my early teenage years. 'You've Got A Friend', 'Fire and Rain', 'It's Too Late', 'Natural Woman' and 'Sweet Baby James' all bear their distinctive, laid back talent. I can pretty much guarantee that you own albums with Russ Kunkel on drums. He has been on thousands.

           Waddy Wachtel (pronounced Wok- Tell) appeared on my radar in 1976 when his 'fat' sounding guitar replaced Andrew Gold in Linda Ronstadt's band. He looked amazing, with his curly, blonde locks and big glasses, and he played like a dream. He became one of my favourite players, almost overnight.

           Last night, Jan & I arrived in Oxford for a Bryan Ferry gig. We were going to be on the last train home so had been in touch with the venue all week, to get some confirmation of timings. All indications were that there would be no support act. As we made our way to our seats, for the 7.30pm start, I heard the guy at the merchandise table telling someone that he should go in and see the support. "She's really good, has a great voice, and a great band," he said. I noticed a flyer for a CD by Judith Owen. The names at the bottom of the flyer were Leland Sklar, Russ Kunkel and Waddy Wachtel. We took our seats, the lights went down, and Judith came out onto the stage. She sat behind the grand piano, at the left of the stage. Quietly, without any introduction, Lee Sklar, Russ Kunkel, Waddy Wachtel and a young percussionist settled themselves onto stools and chairs and began to play. The next thirty minutes were a bit of a blur. We liked Judith, liked her voice, her 'Laurel Canyon- inspired' songs, and her sense of humour. She made no bones about being amazed to be sitting on the same stage as three of the best and most famous musicians in the last 40 years. Me? I don't think I closed my mouth for the first two songs, my jaw dropping further and further as a beautiful bass-run rumbled across the stage, a delicate guitar phrase, filled the hall or another bass-drum stab made my heart skip, as Russ pushed the rhythm along. Thirty minutes later, it was all over. Judith announced that she would be out in the foyer, signing her new CD and said we would also try and get some of these 'amazing musicians to join me.' We nearly knocked three people over in our haste to get out of our seats. After a few minutes I spotted Judith coming up a small flight of stairs. Jan bought the CD, got it signed, and spoke to her about the music and the band. I was hanging about at the top of those small stairs and was duly rewarded as 2 of my absolute musical heroes appeared. Now, it is a standing joke among musicians that God looks like Lee Sklar. His long, silver beard is legendary, James Taylor often saying that, in the old days, he swears that Lee would keep a bottle of Jack Daniels in it. In the days when they all drank, that is. I stopped the great man and asked for a photo. "Sure, be glad to," he said, shaking my hand. Jan took the shot and I told Lee that we'd last seen him on the Toto tour, in Bristol. He nodded. "One of my best and worst nights," he said. "Worst, because of why I was there, but best because I got to play with my friends, some of the best musicians around.” Jan then showed him her screensaver, a lovely photo of the late Mike Porcaro, on stage, with that big old bass he used to wield. "Wow," Lee said, "you guys are true fans." At that point, we were joined by Waddy, smaller but younger-looking than his 67 years. I gushed about Linda Ronstadt albums, Stevie Nicks tours and the late, great Warren Zevon. "Wow, you guys know your stuff. I can't believe anyone here knows who we are." He posed for a photo and I took one of Jan proudly beaming between the two of them. I grinned to myself. Jan and I have been together almost 20 years. When we met, she wouldn't have known Lee Sklar from a hole in the ground. When they had walked out on stage she leaned over to me and 'Feck me, it's Lee Sklar." My grin meant 'my work here is done.' The young Portuguese percussionist joined us, eager to talk about playing with the best rhythm section, ever, and he signed our CD. Lee and Waddy shook our hands warmly, had a couple of photos with the only other people who recognised them, and were gone. Jan and I hugged each other, laughing like kids. Bryan Ferry was fantastic but, as we sat in the pub afterwards, waiting for that last train, the talk was of meeting two lovely, humble, brilliant musicians, as we pinched ourselves. So, we can officially confirm it; God looks like Lee Sklar.