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Friars website introductions

 

Kris Needs

Original Friars member, author, journalist, legend
 

By April 1971 I was a seasoned man of the world compared to the wide-eyed greenhorn who’d sneaked into Phase One, nicely settled into a voyage of adolescent discovery at Aylesbury College, growing the old barnet and carousing with females and other forbidden delights, the notorious Dark Lantern acting as town centre base camp for manouvres. But we still didn’t have a gig; Friars was sorely missed. Then in March David, whose low-ceilinged abode on Castle Street I would often visit, sometimes in a babysitting capacity, told me of Friars’ planned relaunch at the Borough Assembly Hall on April 17 with guitarist Tony McPhee’s psychedelic blues trio the Groundhogs.

     The venerable old hall had already played host to Friars, magical East Of Eden and Third Ear Band sets standing out now. The venue’s history went back much further to when it was called the Grosvenor, putting on 60s legends like Cream and Hendrix. Those boards had been trod by some famous heels.

     At the time I was playing bongos with John Otway, after the short-lived quartet had lost two members. We’d played pubs and scout huts but not really any big gigs. That would change when David asked us to support on the opening night alongside a singer-songwriter called Phillip Goodhand Tait.

     We were on in the middle and allowed about 20 minutes. I know we played ‘The Alamo’ – during which John’s guitar-strap attached to his old grey strides gave out meaning his trousers were literally falling down for much of the set. It went down a storm, finishing up with a ten minute version of that old school poem ‘The Highwayman’ where I got to do a scream and a bongo solo which started the popular legend that I had a razor-blade secreted on the bongos to add some gory effects. My hands were a bloody pulp, Otway was all over the place and we got a mighty cheer. My night was made when I walked off stage straight into Groundhogs drummer Ken Pustelnik, then my favourite percussionist, who said words to the effect of ‘Nice one’.

     So the BAH was off and the next four years would see a stream of highlights, the club becoming firmly established as an essential on any band’s tour and held responsible for launching the career of David Bowie, among many others. I rarely missed a night and can’t possibly give a detailed account of every gig! Some are a blur, some I can’t remember and some stand out as amazing. So I’ll try and run through some of those….

 

1971

Fleetwood Mac in June, the pre-Stevie Nicks/Rumours lineup with Bob Welch on guitar and a nice line in American rock. I remember that stage door area, where I spent quite a lot of time. The groups would come in then mount the stairs leading to the dressing rooms – two small and one large up the end next to the single bog. There was a bang, I opened it and there was six foot five or whatever of Mick Fleetwood, eyeballs on stalks with a big pair of wooden balls swinging from his belt. Nice bloke who severely impressed with his fluid, funky drumming.

     Genesis played the club next, still in that magical Peter Gabriel incarnation which had seen them adopted by the Phase One club. Now they were getting to be one of the biggest bands in the country and blew the roof off with faves like ‘The Knife’. Peter Gabriel was never less than polite and friendly, humble even. Phil Collins, on the other hand, was never less than an arrogant, smart-ass muso tosser. I think this was the night I was standing in front of the stage as the set reached its climax and Peter came sailing over my head, only to land in a heap, spraining his ankle and being carted off to the Royal Bucks Hospital.

     Former Dylan organist Al Kooper was stoned immaculate and everyone was geared up for the Faces making their FA debut on July 2. The group were on the rise, slaughtering festivals and hugely popular thanks to the Long Player album and Rod’s solo stuff. But when I turned up there was a blackboard outside the hall saying the Faces wouldn’t be appearing because Rod had laryngitis. Lindisfarne played instead to the handful who still came in. I’ve since found out that this was another of those nights when the group couldn’t get out of the pub and just tossed out an excuse. They admitted this themselves in a recent magazine interview. Good job I’d seen them a few weeks earlier when Friars put them on Watford Town Hall [Rod pissing himself onstage].

     September saw two classics with Mott The Hoople making their debut at the new venue and the now-legendary first appearance by David Bowie.

     I saw Mott twice on September 4. In the morning a gang of us had gone to Hyde Park to catch one of the free concerts that used to take place. Topping the bill were Steve Marriott’s Humble Pie, I think, but Mott came on in the afternoon on storming form, though the effect was  obviously slightly diminished in broad daylight. This was Mott’s dark, manic period leading up to their split the following March and rescue by David Bowie. The current album was Brain Capers, a proto-punk locomotive of chaos and drunkenness stoked by their berserk producer Guy Stevens. The gig was raging, the crowd went mad and the band were glad to be back.

     September 25 stands as a Friars milestone, the night a relatively-unknown folk singer who’d begged for a gig shuffled in a lamb and strutted out a soon-to-be-superstar lion. David Bowie won over the crowd who’d paid 50p to get in with a set which became increasingly electric as it progressed, peaking with two Velvet Underground covers and visibly relieved as the assembled went bonkers. I was sitting behind Mick Ronson’s amp and could see the relief and confidence growing on Bowie’s face. ‘When I come back I’m going to be completely different’, he announced in the dressing room afterwards; the gig had given him the confidence to transform himself into the starman Ziggy Stardust. He would indeed be back. [Afterwards there was a party at John Otway’s which stretched into the next day and at the time received more notoriety than the gig!].

     Talking of the Velvet Underground, it was very exciting to have a group of that legend playing the club, even if drummer Mo Tucker was the only original member. I still got a shiver up the spinal column when they launched into ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’, even if it was Doug Yule singing it instead of Lou Reed.

     That year’s Friars Christmas party featured Arthur Brown’s Kingdom Come. Me and Otway were supporting, in a kind of electric incarnation and I did a lengthy impression of rugby league commentator Eddie Waring as well as laying an egg after the chicken impersonation. Arthur, the man who brought you ‘Fire’, ended up encouraging onstage trouser-dropping, local space-cake Ginge rising to the occasion.

 

1972

The first gig of the New Year was Osibisa and their ‘criss-cross rhythms that explode with happiness’. African music had not really been seen in this country back then and this was powerfully uplifting stuff.

     On January 29, Bowie made his promised return, the first time Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars had graced a stage. Words still can’t describe the jawdropping impact of their entry after the synthesized version of Beethoven’s Ninth from A Clockwork Orange [Bowie interested to hear that the tramp-kicking scene in the film had been filmed up the road in the station subway]. Starting with ‘Hang On To Yourself’ then ‘Ziggy stardust’, it was unlike anything else at the time; alien, supercharged with taboos and drenched in killer songs like ‘Suffragette City’ and spectacular versions of Cream’s ‘I Feel Free’ and Chuck Berry’s ‘Around And Around’. Afterwards in the dressing room Bowie looked pleased as a dog with two knobs. ‘I told ya!’ he crowed as the local ladies flocked at his feet and asked about his makeup. ‘Well, I don’t want to go round looking like a daed bear’, he declared. On the way out he planted a big smacker on my cheek. The rest is history but this was the start of it. Lifechanging stuff.

     Shortly after Bowie I was incapacitated for several weeks after overdoing it so regrettably missed the MC5, to my eternal regret. This was no half-assed lineup for an American legend but the real deal, complete with Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith in his silver chicken suit. And I missed it, having to put up with glowing reports [although power cuts had rendered it one of those tricky nights, apparently]. I was back in action for the special presentation of Jimi Plays Berkeley, a movie of Hendrix playing an incendiary show in California, which was a bit weird in the BAH but being a fan I didn’t care, lay back and enjoyed it. Of all the flyers I did, this is probably my favourite, copied off a photo of Jimi in full, magnificent flight.

     That summer will forever stand out as truly special. It started on July 15 with Bowie, this time returning as a bona fide superstar as Ziggy-mania hit the country like a thunderbolt. The vibe was totally different from the previous two visits. For a start, the original fans were kept away from the dressing room, new bodyguard Stuey growling at anyone who tried to get up the stage door stairs. This was at the height of the Mainman period where manager Tony Defries kept his charge in Elvis-like isolation, although even a few weeks before we’d sat and chatted with Bowie after an incendiary Friars gig at Dunstable’s Queensway Hall.

     They’d flown over a bunch of American journalists to start whipping up interest for Bowie’s upcoming US offensive, who weren’t disappointed. As ever, Beethoven filled the hall and incited the sell-out crowd to a frenzy as Bowie and the Spiders piled into the Ziggy set, now like a well-oiled machine. Ah well, we’d done our bit and he’d never return to the club which launched his rise [under his own name, anyway].

     It was around this time that Bowie rescued Mott from throwing in the towel, writing them a song called ‘All The Young Dudes’ and finally propelling them into the charts and a new lease of life. The nearest they got to Aylesbury for now would be a gig on the Dudes tour at Dunstable in September. Around then, having helped out with Bowie’s fan club, I started the Mott The Hoople Seadivers [later counting Morrissey and future Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto as members].

     Bowie had also sparked a successful solo career for Lou Reed, the brilliant creative force behind the Velvet Underground, producing the Transformer album and a hit with ‘Walk On The Wild Side’. At the end of the month, Lou made one of his first solo appearances at the club, backed by the Tots and their annoying bass-player. He played his solo stuff and, heart-stoppingly for the Velvets diehards, some of the old classics. It was great to see him and he was even friendly afterwards [although later claiming not to remember a thing about it!].

     A week later a new group called Roxy Music appeared. They had been supporting Bowie and attracting great press with a new strain of music which transcended glam rock with its arty lyrics, futuristic synthesizer embellishments from the peacock-feathered Brian Eno, managing to invade the charts with debut single ‘Virginia Plain’. They would go on to become huge.

Genesis returned in September, Peter Gabriel now sporting his shaved-head-and-batwings image. Starting with ‘Watchers Of the Skies’, climaxing with ‘The Knife’, they were now massive too but showed genuine humility at being back at the club where it first took off [apart from that grotesque gnome behind the drums]. The same month saw some unbridled whoopee when Roy Wood’s Wizzard staggered around the stage in their costumes and 50s rock ‘n’ roll flavours livening up the hall no end. ‘It’s a great gig!’ slurred the affable Wood afterwards. He still remembered it [surprisingly!] when I saw him at last year’s MOJO awards.

 1973

Mott The Hoople finally returned in February, back in another phase of their roller-coaster career. We’d missed the Dudes phase and now they were on to the next one as the Mainman relationship had fizzled as Bowie’s star rose. He was supposed to produce their next album but was simply too busy. Now the group were going to do it themselves, recording live faves like ‘Hymn For the dudes’ and ‘Ballad Of Mott The Hoople’ for the Mott album, which would be their biggest ever. Meanwhile, Mott were  greeted rapturously like homecoming heroes and played a blinder having shed some of the glitter in return for their irrepressible rock ‘n’ roll roots.

     One of the all-time biggies for me was when David asked me to do a flyer for Can, the legendary German experimental outfit who were playing in February. I’d been into them since Peel started playing their debut album Monster Movie in 1969 then the awesome Tago Mago, quite rightly compared to a flying saucer landing in the back garden. They proved immensely popular, one of the most inter-galactic ensembles the club ever witnessed as they played for hours, seemingly levitating the hall. Fronted by Japanese singer Damo Suzuki, who they’d found busking on the streets, keyboards-player Irmin Schmidt, bassist Holger Czuzuki, guitarist Michael Karoli and locomotive funky drummer Jaki Liebeziht improvised around album tracks, including the the Ege Bamyasi album, taking off on lengthy flights which could go on for half an hour.

     Can returned several times, twice the following year. Again, they turned out to be far from the fearsome image their sound might have projected, Irmin particularly pleasant and quite shocked when I correctly told him what seasons I thought the albums were recorded in [You did that sort of thing back then!].

     Apart from these highlights, Friars Phase 2 had developed its own traditions and faves as groups like Stackridge, Jack The Lad and String Driven Thing regularly appeared to much drunken jigging about. A little gang of faithfuls headed by the Keinch brothers helped out and cleaned up afterwards, calling themselves Standard Lamp and the Shades. [Sadly Colin still thinks he’s there, if he’s still alive].

 1974

Sometimes it was like Friars existed to break new bands, checking them out after David had taken a chance then welcoming them with wide open arms. This, in turn, stoked the artists to further heights and several triumphant return visits which instantly sold out. Such was the case with Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel, a strange-looking bunch in uniforms boasting a violin and piano as main instruments. Friars heard and cheered the songs from their Psychomodo album from first unveiling to chart status as the group became bigger nationwide throughout this year, returning several times [May, June and August – never has a band been so concentrated in its appearances!]. Abiding memory: the whole hall singing ‘Oh dear, look what they’ve done to the blues’ like it was a football terrace’.

     Steve Harley had a tough image but was always exceedingly friendly. Maybe he identified with the fact that I now worked for the local paper, the Bucks Advertiser, just like he’d started in Essex. I liked his way with words and charismatic stage presence which earned him the Friars trophy, presented by David one riotous night. There was a coach trip to their big London gig, Magenta De Vine tried to start a fan club and then they hit massively with ‘Make Me Smile’, although would still come back.

     Queen graduated from Mott support band to main attraction in March [They’d been in the audience for the Bowie gig]. I was more excited by a projected double bill of Velvet Underground chanteuse Nico and French jazz-rock maniacs Magma but it got pulled.

 1975

Sadly, Mott The Hoople had split in 1974, or rather Hunter had left with new guitarist Mick Ronson while the others carried on. The new Hunter-Ronson band played in March as Ian struck gold with ‘Once Bitten Twice Shy’ and was still showered in adoration. Otway and me went back to the Bell hotel in Aston Clinton with him for some drinks then walked back to Aylesbury. Pressures and unfortunate events had prompted him to depart the band and he was more than willing to talk about it, while still extolling his praise for the Friars faithful.

     Another band to blow the roof off and provide a glimpse of things to come were Dr Feelgood, all the way from Canvey Island. Amidst all the whimsy and prog-rock indulgence then doing the rounds, the Feelgoods stood out as raw, energized and unpretentious, heralding the return to rock ‘n’ roll roots which would inspire punk. Soiled and drunk, front-man Lee Brillieaux was sinisterly captivating, rasping through classics by Bo Diddley and the group’s own live monsters like ‘Roxette’. Guitarist Wilco Johnson was main visual focal point, pinballing around the stage with a manic look in his eyes as each guitar solo took him off on a robotic rampage. Friars embraced this great band several times and they happily returned the favour [with a boozy scowl] once their albums started hitting big.

     August saw a grim taste of things to come when Friars had to cease activites at the Borough Assembly Hall because the site was being redeveloped, closing with Andy Fairweather Low of Amen Corner and ‘Wide-Eyed And Legless’ renown. It got a whole page [written by me] in the local paper.

     This would be a familiar source of discontent in Aylesbury as the years went by, reaching its current mindless peak where the perfectly-fine Civic Centre is being demolished when it’s only been in action for just over 30 years. But what do you expect from authorities who can knock down The Ship Inn, one of the town’s most well-loved pubs, without a second thought? The Borough Assembly Hall might have seen better days but it had also seen music history and some classic nights of the sort unlikely to be repeated in some characterless new non-smoking theatre. Still, in the mid-70s, Phase Three was still to come…

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