Compiled from an interview with Michael Skywood Clifford
I was learning to play the guitar through the ‘folk boom’ of the mid-Sixties. My heroes were Dylan, Donovan, Paul Simon, Bert Jansch, Jake Thackray, Peter Paul & Mary (she was a heroine of course) and the Incredible String Band. I learned finger-style before I could do barre chords.
I was playing things like Needle of Death, Anji, Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright and 59th Street Bridge Song, before I could do a simple rock n roll 12 bar riff, although I’d been listening to rock n roll riffs since I bought my first record. (Bill Haley’s ‘See You Later Alligator’ on 78 rpm). It’s ironic, considering the sort of stuff I do now, that at that time I had no desire to play electric guitar. In fact I used to think that solid electric guitars looked ugly.
The best investment I ever made was in a record and tutor book by John Pearse which predated his Hold Down A Chord series on TV. I learned acoustic blues and clawhammer from that and never looked back.
My first ever public appearance was in December 1965 at the 1500 Club in Barwell (Queens Head). I stood behind Chris Bee (who was very tall and played twelve string guitar) and timidly added some finger picking to Mr. Tambourine Man.
The 1500 (later the Bar-W) was one of our favourite haunts in those days. I have so many fond memories of the place, but the fondest, I suppose, was the night Steve Cartwright and I did a sort of Incredible String Band tribute. This was in 1967 or 1968 when the club was being run by Terry Sharrott (later Terry St. Clair). Between us we played guitars, mandolin, banjo, harmonica, kazoo, recorder and various percussion devices, including a tea chest bass drum painted up in psychedelic patterns. The place was so packed that night we had people’s elbows in our faces as we played.
I had met Steve at a folk club at Hinckley Grammar School in 1965 and we worked up a few songs together. The only one I actually remember us doing was Jagger and Richard’s Play With Fire. We weren’t exactly folk purists, you understand.
Steve and I and a few friends from the Grammar School started up our own folk club at the Youth Centre in Bowling Green Road (now a college gym) which we called ‘Sing-Sing’. Through ‘Sing-Sing’ I met John Stubbs and Jane Briggs and we formed ‘The Amethyst Trio’, basing our repertoire on Peter, Paul and Mary. John Stubbs (from Barwell) had a particularly good voice. He left the area and went down to London. The last time I saw him was in the early 70s when he was in a South London band called Sykes.
In May 1966 we moved the folk club to the Weavers Arms in Derby Road. We were the resident group, but we sometimes shared the honours with a guitar/ double bass jazz duo who were residents at a club called the Chameleon in Leicester.
The Chameleon was a late night coffee bar and in those days any late night place where you could hang around for the price of a tea or a coffee was likely to be invaded by a bunch of adolescents with guitar cases.
The greasy spoon on the A5, which is Hanover now, was another favourite. I think the jazz duo latched onto us more for the fact the bassist fancied Jane than for any musical reason. I remember we teamed up to do a version of ‘Big Noise From Winnetka’, which, with a following wind, could go on for weeks.
The folk scene was brilliant in those days. There were so many clubs you could play at, every night of the week. Not just clubs, either – everyone wanted to book folk acts – women’s institutes, churches, schools, colleges – usually for something they liked to call a ‘hootenanny’, whatever that was.
We were the acceptable face of young people with guitars. And there were so many good local acts around at that time as well. Some of the ones I remember were the Couriers, who ran Leicester’s biggest club at the Victoria on Granby Street and later at the Saracen’s Head in the Market Place (they once had Paul Simon as a guest); Lyn and Candy, who were gorgeous and sang great harmonies into the bargain; Mark Newman, who was Leicester’s Bert Jansch, the finger-picker to check-out; and George Kaye. Especially George Kaye.
George was a phenomenon. He played fiddle and twelve-string like someone digging a trench. He had a voice that could open gates. Everyone in those days was in awe of George Kaye. He had a brother, Taddeus, who was a great flat-picker, probably the best in the area. George left Leicester to play over in Ireland. I remember I was on holiday there in 1969 and played a solo spot at a club in Athlone. I got talking with some
people afterwards and I happened to mention that I knew George Kaye. The reaction I got was like someone in a bar in New York in 1964 just happening to mention they knew John Lennon. By chance I got to hear him again sometime in the early 80s when I was working at the Reference Library in Leicester. George and his electric band (including Thaddeus on lead) was playing in a trailer in the Town Hall Square. They did a great version of ‘The Battle of New Orleons’.
Anyway, back to the Sixties. John Stubbs left the trio and he was replaced by Pete (later Geoff) Richardson. Pete was a very talented musician, even in those days. He had a good voice and played twelve string guitar, though he switched to 6-string when he joined us. In August 1966 we changed our name to the Springhill Trio.
We moved the Amethyst Club to the Black Horse in Upper Bond Street for a final fling that lasted until December. The trio folded about the same time. Pete and I did a couple of gigs together (one of them at Steve Cartwright’s Doll’s House Club in Shilton) before he went off to Canterbury Art College. It was while he was there he met and joined the rock band Caravan, playing electric voila, and he toured the world and made three albums before they disbanded. Since then he has played with The Penguin Café Orchestra (which ceased before Christmas last due to the death of their guitarist – Ed). In my opinion Geoff Richardson is the best rock musician to emerge from Hinckley.
I was at University in London between 1969 and 1972. In the summer break of 1971 I teamed up briefly with Steve Cartwright’s Chicago Cottage. We did a session for Radio Leicester in the old cattle market studios. I don’t remember what I played on, but I do recall sitting in the Radio Leicester outside broadcast van parked in the yard listening to Steven and the girls (with some double-tracking) doing a great version of Chinese White, the Incredible String Band number.
After university I met up with Steve again and I was immensely impressed with what he had achieved in the meantime. He had written songs. He had a studio. He had a rock band, Wellington, which sounded terrific. I was a fan, I went to all their gigs. Then their lead guitarist, Keith Krykant, left and Steve invited me to step in. This, frankly, was a bad move on his part.
I was a folk guitarist. I had never played electric guitar in my life and this was the age of the guitar hero. Wellington needed someone like Brian May and it got me instead. I have to say this of Steve: in the matter of music he has often put heart before head and has not always chosen the best people for the job. I have known him play with people who couldn’t play at all, just because he felt right with them. For me, Wellington was an enjoyable mistake, but in spite of the fact that the mix in the band was wrong, we were popular and got plenty of work, doing Steve’s original material on the college circuit and covers in the clubs.
Steve hated the covers; he would always want to do his own stuff, which was not usually what a club audience wanted to hear. We were also accused of being too loud at times. I remember playing a gig at Hollycroft Park which, apparently, was heard in Burbage. As a result of that, I’m afraid, the council ruled out any further ‘rock’ concerts in the park for a good many years afterwards.
Wellington split in April 1974. Apart from the odd solo spot I was off the scene until late 1978 when I formed ‘Dumb Waiter’. This was an acoustic string trio with Rick Butterworth on classical guitar and Rob Taylor (ex-Loxley Hall, future Oakenshield) on mandolin. We made a nice sound, with a repertoire based around a dozen guitar instrumentals I had written. We managed a few floor spots before Rick and Rob decided they didn’t like each other enough.
I languished until March 1985 when Steve Cartwright, who must have been at a loose end at the time, suggested we put together a band to play the clubs. It has always amazed me that it was Steve that suggested it, given his views on playing covers. But we went ahead and put together ‘Earl & The Shiltones’, with Harry Heppingstall on drums, Steve on bass and me on guitar
Our repertoire was built around Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers, because I could do that stuff in my sleep and it was the quickest way of putting a set together. We went down very well wherever we played. Remarkably well in some places. I think it may have been to do with the fact that there were fewer ‘nostalgia’ bands around at that time and our repertoire sounded different.
Of course, we had Harry, who is a brilliant drummer, and Steve and I sang good harmonies. We played from March 1985 until November 1986. Then Steve left. Harry and I auditioned a few people, but nothing worked out. In November 1988, Steve decided to give it anothe shot. We lasted until the following March when Harry left to join ‘Kats’.
I would have put money on that being the end of the road for me. In fact it was, until October 1996, when I met three guys from the Gilmorton/ Market Harborough area and joined them for a gig at Whitemoors in Shenton.
It was just a one-off play-for-your-mates sort of evening, and it has to be said that as a group we were pretty rough. But none of us wanted it to end at that. We are all of an age to recognise an opportunity when it arises, so we stuck it out and formed ‘Stranded in the Sixties’.
Dave Laurence (drums) started in the early Sixties in a Leicester band, Tony Bart and the Strangers. His next outfit, The Renegades, included Trevor Oakes, later of Shawaddywaddy. In the 70s he joined an esoteric, Moody Blues-inspired seven piece called Exodus, which had Dave Dolby as a vocalist. Dolby started way back in 1958 in a Leicester skiffle group, ‘The Offbeats’. In common with many skiffle groups, The Offbeats discovered electricity in the early Sixties and started doing rock n roll material.
Dolby has a nice story about a talent competition they entered which was organised by Gerry Dorsey’s agent. Gerry, of course, later changed his name to Engelbert Humperdinck, but at that time he was recuperating from a bout of TB in Groby Road Hospital. The Offbeats won the competition with their rendition of Shaking All Over (which is partly why Stranded in the Sixties still do a version of it) and were invited by Gerry to do a gig for his fellow patients. They turned up with all their gear only to find there were no electricity points in the ward. Gerry saved the day by crooning a few numbers in his silk dressing gown.
Mick Bailey (bass) started his career in the Kettering area, playing with ‘The Junkies’ (who were actually banned at some venues because of their name). He later joined ‘The Senators’, who were the No. 1 group in the area at that time and supported most of the big visiting acts, which included The Walker Brother and The Hollies. In 1968 he joined the Police (the force, not the group, unfortunately) and effectively quit the scene until 1989 when he joined a Lutterworth band called Eclipse.
As Stranded in the Sixties, we have done about 30 gigs so far. We seem to appeal most of all to people having 50th birthdays or 25th wedding anniversaries. We all sing, so we tend to make a feature of harmony numbers. We do a whole range of material for the 50s and 60s, especially the Beatles, The Crickets, The Searchers, The Kinks, The Hollies and the Beach Boys.
I joined Stranded in the Sixties, when I was 50. It’s the band I have most enjoyed being in. There’s a moral in that for any of the Musical Time’s younger readers.