School of Rock

Alexa misheard me. I was after ‘Scipio’, a gentle rock/classical track from Sky, but instead I got something a lot heavier, ‘Scorpio’, by someone I also misheard and straight away the track started, a solid heavy rock beat that had me hooked so quickly I left it on. And that’s how it’s been for 40 years. Something about that beat, that feel, that I find irresistible. No, more than that, it’s inside me. I’m drawn to it because it feels part of me.

This, as with most kids, started at school, early teens. Do we all get caught up in pop music at that age? Not everyone, but it seemed so to me. We were defined by the music we loved, and all over the country formed ourselves into factions, with no great love lost between them.

I think it started with Rainbow. Not the sickly children’s programme with puppets, but a serious, hard-hitting rock band that I’d heard of. In February 1980 they released a single called ‘All Night Long’ and I heard it on Top of the Pops. I’m not sure I’d heard this sort of thing before. Previously I’d bought ‘Message in a Bottle’ by The Police, and the same time that I bought ‘All Night Long’ I got ‘Atomic’ by Blondie, so my tastes were all over the place. Still to come were ‘Going Underground’ by The Jam and ‘Chi Mai’, a haunting Ennio Morricone instrumental. But somehow, and I can only explain it by my first paragraph, it was the heavy rock single that became the beginning of a lifelong love of that genre.

I think things took a natural course, in that I think this is what happens to most teenagers and music. A first single then becomes a second single by the same group, then an album. Rainbow were hardly mainstream, in fact all rock bands rarely forayed into the charts, even the charts themselves were seen as rather a soft option by the bands. So Rainbow didn’t release any more singles for a year, and I stepped straight into their albums.  In 1980 there were only five of these, and at £3.99 each, to buy one meant saving up for a long time. Getting a new Rainbow album was a huge treat, diligently earned by weekly sacrifice, and rather like chocolate bars for Charlie Bucket, a new one was a treasure to be lingered over.

I must have bought the album with ‘All Night Long’ on it first, then being rather orderly about these things, I bought their first album, released back in the depths of time in 1975. After the in-your-face bluster and solid riffery of ‘All Night Long’ their first album was a disappointment that I couldn’t deny. It wasn’t the same sound at all. It felt much more acoustic and twangy, the drums were a lot lighter, it was almost folky. History shows us that Ritchie Blackmore, the guitarist, had taken over another band solely because he wanted their singer. So he joined them (he was a world-famous guitar player, I guess they couldn’t say no), humbly changed their name from Elf to Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, they made an album, then he sacked them all, kept the singer, hired the people he really wanted, and everything was hunky dory. Apart from for the now-ditched-and-feeling-used members of Elf, I suppose.

This is not a tale of the life and times of Rainbow, so I’ll just say that I slowly acquired the treats of 2 of the other albums (which sounded much better to me), but one eluded me, the live double album the band recorded in 1977. It was over the rainbow for me because of its stupendous price, £7.20. This was a sum I’d never stretch to, and every week, when my friends and fellow rockers went to the record shop in the Big Town, I’d find it and look at it in its place along the aisle, with its bright, alluring cover (just my heroes on stage, but it was so exciting to see) and big action shots of the five great men inside the two covers. I was desperate for this record, or records. In the end, as a birthday present I think, my dad forked out the huge sum, and I had my prize. Of course, as with the other albums, I listened to it endlessly.

My friends were friends first (there were only three of them) but two of them were rockers like me, and I was aware that there were others like us, in different parts and years of the school. And I was also aware that for some inexplicable reason, there were other groups who’d teamed up due to a love of other kinds of music. Unthinkable! In 1980 the distinctions were very clear, and the boundaries uncrossable. There were Mods, a rather natty breed who spoiled that effect by wearing jackets called Parkas, and who danced to strange, jiggy English reggae, ska music as I found out, they seemed cold to me.

Even though there were elements of my chosen music (chosen? Inbuilt, Ed.) that were vaguely frightening, I was much more scared by punks. If Mods seemed cold, punks were wild, they wore rags, did mad things to their hair, and the music was awful. I was already deeply into music itself as a practitioner, and could see no joy, or music itself really, in the noise and horrid out-of-tune wailing of the Sex Pistols, the most prominent punk group at the time. Give me solid, tuneful riffs and chords, with great singing on top and a beat you could lay a road with.

And then the New Romantics appeared. Gangs of mechanical androids standing behind banks of keyboards (yes Kraftwerk, I’m looking at you) playing one note each. Worse, to a boy of my age and incomprehension, they were mechanical effeminate androids. Their music did at least have the melodies the punks lacked, but there was rarely a guitar in sight. (I’d fallen in love with the guitar, predictably, and had slowly started playing along with records in my bedroom).

It’s hard to over-emphasise the conviction of every one of the musical factions at that age, it was such a huge part of your identity. Each culture was utterly committed to its own music, mostly to the exclusion and shunning of any other kind. It was an important part of being a teenager.

Vital though it was to us, when local discos came around, they must have been an absolute hoot for any adults who were there. Mostly the DJ would play mainstream stuff, music way beneath the interest of the Factions, and the girls would sway listlessly on the dance floor. We boys never strayed near it, and drank Cream Sodas and sat around the walls of the hall. But there would soon come a moment when the record selected was the music of one of the Factions, and at that point everything changed. If ‘Going Underground’ was played, the sharp Mods would take over, mostly lanky youths still in their Parkas indoors, stride onto the floor and do their particular moves. These involved some fancy footwork, and consequently a lot of time was spent concentrating hard as they watched their feet. They looked like diligent penguins.

If the DJ started playing the intro to ‘Anarchy in the UK’, the punks would explode from all corners of the room, eager to portray the song title in practical form immediately. Their dancing was extraordinary, the most distinctive move being the ‘pogo’, where they would leap into the air and thrash their upper bodies like gaffed salmon. The more collisions with fellow dancers this involved the better, indeed, they packed themselves into as close a group as possible to achieve this intentionally, it was animalistic chaos. Colourful chaos though, as even in the semi-light you could see the bright plumes of hair bobbing and crashing into each other.

(Side story I was once told about punks. An old gentleman was sitting in a park and a young man went by in colourful tattered rags with a bright red Mohican haircut. He saw the old man looking at him in amazement. ‘Come on pops,’ he said, ‘Didn’t you have some fun when you were young?’. ‘I certainly did’, said the gent, ‘I once fucked a parrot and I thought you might be my son.’)

We, the rockers, were no less hilarious to any onlooking adults. At the sound of one of ‘our’ bands, we’d also charge into that space right in front of the DJ platform and start our headbanging. This was just as energetic as the punks thrashings had been, except that we placed our legs apart, hands on knees, bent over and simply threw our heads around, our long, dirty hair being flung though the air. Except I and my friends were just neat little schoolboys, with neat, short hair. We did the ‘dance’ but failed to look the part completely. With the emphasis on throwing our heads around, the chances of contact and injury were even greater than the punks, and it was extremely common to bash your head into another’s, and both reel away in pain. And as if that wasn’t disorientating enough, the effect of doing that dance, even for just the 3 minutes of ‘Breaking the Law’ by Judas Priest was to make you extremely dizzy, and even those who managed to stay on their feet after the song wandered back to their Cream Sodas in all directions.

Then back to Cliff Richard and the mainstreamers, the girls would return calmly to the floor and the madness was over till the next round. Of course ‘I’m not in Love’ by 10cc would clear the floor immediately.

My commitment during our exhausting headbanging sessions was clearly no match for my interest in the realities of the music, and I remember being embroiled in the melee when the opening bars of ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’ came on, and I stopped dancing, stood straight, above the swishing waves of hair, and thought ‘Wow! What a riff, that’s brilliant’ and just stood there listening to it. I must have been quite a let-down to my peers. O god Dan’s having one of his musical moments. Get your head down lad!

By this time, I’d branched out a lot from Rainbow, while they remained the main trunk of my rock tree. And there were enough bands out there to listen to, though I crept along pretty shyly. I was a very polite and studious rocker. The names of Def Leppard and Led Zeppelin, with their deliberate mis-spelling put me off, and Lynyrd Skynyrd, what was that supposed to mean? Even the band with that monumental riff I’d heard at the disco, Blue Oyster Cult, had an ostentatious umlaut over the O. Black Sabbath, Saxon, Whitesnake, AC/DC, Judas Priest, Thin Lizzy, The Scorpions, Iron Maiden, Rush, The Tygers of Pan Tang, Blackfoot, Queensryche, Magnum, Samson, Uriah Heep, Nazareth, the list went on and on, heavy rock was a big thing in those days. So many Gothic, satanic, mis-spelt, macho and pseudo-heroic words! If you wanted a category to play Scrabble within, you could do worse than Heavy Rock. A magazine came out, called Kerrang! complete with the exclamation mark. For years I got the mag and never questioned the name; finally it was explained (in the mag itself, in a very embarrassed tone), that this word was supposed to represent the noise of a single power chord being loudly strummed on a guitar. Oh dear.

But I learnt all about my expanding world through this mag. There were interviews with everyone. I read about Kiss, the glam rock band, whose costumes were so ludicrously unwieldy and heavy that if they needed to go for a pee during a show they didn’t bother to leave the stage. Hawkwind were legends, rockers from the depths of the drug-fuelled 60s and 70s, and they used to have a semi-naked hippie lady swaying mesmerically on stage while they played.

One day someone at school said ‘You know ‘Smoke on the Water’?’. I didn’t, and they were – I know this now – rightly incredulous. ‘You don’t know-? I suppose you know about Deep Purple?’ I didn’t, but their amazement gave to education, and I was told to seek out these monsters of the heavy rock scene. Being polite, studious and orderly, all the things a solid rocker should be, after all, I went and bought ‘Deepest Purple, The Very Best of Deep Purple’, which I loved because it had an exciting image of a chunky Fender Stratocaster on the front, and went through that. This led me to the various albums the band had made, and this lot became my new lifelong favourites.

At the time in was neck-and-neck between them and Led Zeppelin for the title of the greatest rock band in the world. But to me, Purple had a much fuller sound, they blended as a great, heavy combo, Zeppelin sounded rawer, more a band of four separate members, as opposed to Purple’s cohesive noise. And Purple also had my old mate from Rainbow, Ritchie Blackmore as their guitarist, in fact he’d left one to form the other. He was by now firmly established as my favourite guitarist, but within our rock faction, there were constant debates about who was the best guitarist, drummer, or singer. Keyboardists seemed to escape this comparison.

Along with the Purple/Zeppelin row, those two featured two of the most famous guitarists: we had Ritchie, Zeppelin fans idolised Jimmy Page. Emerging in Germany was a slim blond guitarist called Michael Schenker. Journey’s Neal Schon in America had a top reputation. Tony Iommi from Black Sabbath, and the rock-till-I-die guitarist from AC/DC, Angus Young was in the mix.

The drumming debate seemed pretty simple to me, there was, and never has been anyone to touch Neil Peart from Rush. Cosy Powell in Rainbow was a force of nature, playing right at the front of the beat to give the band a real driving force. Ian Paice, the magician on the kit in Deep Purple, was amazing; they had a song called ‘Burn’ which is virtually a drum fill from start to finish, how many arms does that man have?! But Neil Peart played such interesting and occasionally mind-blowing accompaniments in Rush that he was the one for me. A friend at school once said to me ‘Neil Peart doesn’t play the drums, he plays the tune!’ and I always thought that was perfect.

I became a drummer myself at this time, in a way. I would imitate the sound of a drum kit, and this could break out at any moment, whether there was music playing nearby or not. My vocal Neil Peart could be heard in classes all over the school. And this was no mere phase, incredibly it still isn’t, in fact. During a high-profile orchestral tour about 20 years ago, I realised I was doing it, while we were waiting for food in a restaurant or somewhere inappropriate like that, and for the only time ever, I asked my colleague, who I’d sat next to during many, many such tours if he found the sound irritating. An extremely polite man, he paused and said ‘It is a bit’.

Bringing this right up to date (2022), I now find that lots of people do the vocal drumming thing, in fact people do it professionally and fill huge concert halls with it. It’s called Beatbox. Have a listen. It is a bit irritating.

Singers were very much a source of argument, especially in direct confrontation, often when one singer had replaced another in a band. When Bon Scott, the charismatic frontman of AC/DC (along with the iconic Angus Young) finally partied himself to death in 1980, who on earth were they ever going to get to replace him? Die-hard Bon Scott fans swore there’d never be another, even that the band should fold. They rallied, and somehow came across a gravel-voiced Geordie called Brian Johnson, who became and remains the perfect replacement. Things were much more acrimonious when Ozzy Osbourne quit Black Sabbath. They managed to get Ronnie James Dio (ex-Rainbow at the time) to join them. But RJD, as well as being the greatest singer of them all (I’ll get that out of the way now) was quite short, and Ozzy lashed out in NME, quite unnecessarily, saying he’d been replaced by a dwarf. The laugh’s on you Ozzy, cos as singers there’s no comparison.

A couple of other things to tell, in this attempt to explain why rock burns within me, or at least why the embers re-ignite so readily! If things had started for me in February 1980, I must have been drawn in quite fast, and a few short months later I knew what I liked, the sound, the format, I knew how heavy I liked my metal. But on the 6th of October I was shocked. The announcer on Top of the Pops said ‘Now here’s Motorhead, with ‘The Ace of Spades’’ and an incredible noise started. I think I backed away from the telly. This was rock played as I’d never heard it, 100mph and absolutely furious. It was flabbergasting, I don’t think anyone had heard anything like this, certainly not on TOTP.

Secondly, given my increasing love of trying to play the guitar, of course there came a time when, with a friend, I formed my own band. He was to be the singer, and given our agreement about the ideal rock band set-up, we recruited a drummer, bassist and keyboard player. We called ourselves Shrine and did rather well, within the confines of a secondary school in remotest Cumbria, that is. The other day I came across a tape of a school gig we did (they were all school gigs, but they happened quite a lot), and was delighted to find that, after one of the songs an obviously disgruntled punter is heard chanting ‘What a load of rubbish’. Brilliant. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say that and mean it.

But we weren’t all bad. The bassist was good. And it was great fun. I was a shy guitarist. Virtually every track had a guitar solo, especially if I’d written it, yet instead of the posturing, playing to the audience which all rock guitar solos demand, instead I turned away and shyly constructed my 16 bars of exposure with my back to the audience. Hardly Yngwie Malmsteen. Despite the hero worship of my favourite rock stars, I could never put myself in their platform shoes. Though to my shame, one track I wrote was called Heavy Metal Motorway, which is a perfect example of an already parodied musical genre.

Here’s a tip though, if you’re in a band and want to cover that Queen classic ‘We Will Rock You’. The first three verses of this song are just the singer on his own, before the guitarist comes crashing in with a so-effective power chord. A lot of singers, including professionals – I’ve heard it many times – if left to sing on their own, find it hard to stick to the pitch, and can drift away, usually sinking lower as it’s easier on the voice. It’s not something the singer or the listener is aware of. Freddie Mercury was a brilliant singer, and he didn’t drift, partly because Queen gave him a reference note to stick to, so Brian May’s power chord worked really well. We didn’t spot this safety mechanism. So our singer, good as he was, did rather stray from the right key, and over the course of the three verses, sank several semitones. So when my big moment came, my guitar chord sounded like something from hell. After that, during that last verse, we did what Queen did, and had a reference note. Learn from those who know.

And then there was Freebird. This is the sound-of-the-seventies nine-minute anthem by Lynyrd Skynyrd (what does that mean?), and it soon became a thing for every single school rock band to finish their set with it. It is great, a rightful classic, but none of us could play it. We’d get through the verses and choruses in a less-than-classic fashion, but then came The Guitar Solo. This is about half the length of the piece, or it feels like it anyway. In Lynyrd Skynyrd’s hands it’s a driving, mesmerising several minutes of power guitar heroics. Our versions were the opposite: spectacularly laborious, yawn-inducing, flailing attempts to get any atmosphere at all going. We were the best group in school, which is saying so very little, so we went last, and after hearing the song murdered by every other band in the concert, I remember our audience taking my solo as their cue to start reaching for their coats and filing out of the back of the theatre. I couldn’t play it then and I still can’t.

Of course there’s something inherently deserving of comedy and embarrassment in rock. The posing and prancing is just crying out not to be taken seriously, as the makers of Spinal Tap proved. Right back at the beginning, I found the lyrics of ‘All Night Long’ pretty duff, yet we all sang them just because they were the lyrics. Maybe that’s why I’ve virtually ignored, or don’t seem to notice the lyrics ever since. There are some great examples of misheard lyrics in rock. Saxon’s should-be-an-anthem track ‘The Dogs of War’ sounds like ‘The Ducks of War’ when you listen to it. Mentioned earlier, ‘Breaking the Law’ by Judas Priest sounds like ‘Raking the Lawn’. And there’s a famous example from Jimi Hendrix, in his song ‘Purple Haze’, where many people mistook ‘Excuse me while I kiss the sky’ for ‘Excuse me while I kiss this guy’.

The posturing and egos can be spectacularly overt. I loved the band Whitesnake, founded by their lead singer David Coverdale. But hold on, what has he named his band after, exactly…?

There was a great example of rock gone wrong when we had a school trip to Newcastle to see Gillan, one of the top bands at the time. They were supported on that tour by a strong Canadian trio called Budgie, and the support set was going along nicely when it somehow seemed to fall apart. One minute we were all loving the powerful sounds coming from the stage, the next it sort of fumbled to a halt. I strained to see what had happened, and spotted that the drummer had conked out, he was face down on his snare drum. Of course Budgie had to beat an embarrassed retreat, climb down from their perch if you like, but here was a perfect demonstration of all the bluster going wrong. And in my utter naivety, being unaware at the age of 15 that rock people drank anything, much less snorted or injected anything I just thought ‘He must be really tired’.

But despite all the failings, rock was, and still is, inside me. And I’m sure it’s the same for everyone else as they get older, the love and the feel for their teenage music stays with them. Nowadays we don’t fight over it any more. My Best Man was a punk (though like me, he didn’t have the hair to fully commit) yet we’ve managed to get round that difference. He’s very funny about it.

The rock beat will always lure and distract me. In shops, cabs, pubs, or anywhere there’s a radio going, if a rock song comes on, especially an old favourite, I’m gone, I’m not shopping or even chatting to someone any more, I’ve glazed over. Maybe that first single should have been called ‘All Life Long’.

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