Chapter 16 : Flowerpot Men on the Road

Without delay Carlo, Bill, Ged and I were plunged into a series of one-nighters, beginning with the Floral Hall at Southport, a seaside resort on Britain’s west coast, situated mid-way between Liverpool and Blackpool. The after-gig inquest decided that it was a resounding success and the four singers congratulated us on our performances. Buoyed up by this initial triumph, the eight of us soon gelled into a slick, confident act, with each show being better than the last! The opening song was always the Four Seasons’ “Let’s Hang On”, with Tony Burrows hitting Frankie Valli’s high notes with ease, followed by various songs by the Four Tops, The Beach Boys and Wilson Pickett. Of course the hit song “Let’s Go To San Francisco” was always a show stopper. For the early shows, as backing musicians we were expected to drive ourselves, and often to hump our own gear. It was soon decided however that the status of the band demanded a road manager, which was supplied after a bit of wrangling with the office. Mark was a young, cheerful and willing roadie, who took the load off the band but kept us alert by his disconcerting habit of turning his head frequently to the rear of the truck during conversation whilst driving, seemingly oblivious to the potential hazards up ahead!

 

Following several weeks of one-nighters, we embarked on a short tour of Ireland. We carried out an interesting experiment on poor Mark, by waking him up just one hour after he had fallen asleep for the overnight ferry crossing, telling him that the ferry was about to dock. He picked up his watch, which we had advanced by 8 hours, declared how refreshed he felt after a great night’s sleep and proceeded to wash, shave and dress himself. Someone mentioned that he might be too late for breakfast, so Mark swiftly dashed into the restaurant demanding food. Naturally the evening bar staff thought he was a madman and told him so in no uncertain terms! I can’t repeat what Mark called us when he returned to the cabin, but he had to agree, as he settled down to sleep, that it had been a good gag! The tour of Ireland was a great success, marked by the hordes of screaming girls. This is of course fostered resentment amongst the males in the audience who responded to the girls’ screams by showering us with (usually lit) cigarette butts! The overall Irish hospitality shone through however and we thoroughly enjoyed the tour.

 

As the work brought in regular money, far in excess of what we had been used to, I decided that it was time to upgrade my image. For a couple of years I had been happily trundling around in my little Austin Mini-van. Now an opportunity presented itself! The garage mechanic who looked after my vehicle was the proud owner of a gleaming Jaguar Mark II 3.4 litre sports saloon which he had tuned and uprated into a real mean machine! Sadly, due to his marriage, the car had to be sold. I had been a passenger in this vehicle several times, and the thought of owning it appealed to me immediately! Before several days had passed, I had paid a deposit and signed the hire-purchase papers (the usual form of credit during the 1960’s). A local Hayes lad had given me £60 for the Mini, and I caught the bus to the garage to pick up the British Racing Green beauty, with its distinctive number plate 7 XPB. “Remember”, said the previous owner, as I prepared to drive away, “this isn’t a Mini, this is a bomb!!” I soon forgot his words as I steered into Hayes High Street and hit a poor unsuspecting lady’s car in the rear! Not only was it a bomb, it also had a bonnet many times longer than a Mini! Luckily, no damage was done and I proudly piloted the Jaguar back home, to the envy of the neighbourhood.

 

After a month of one-nighters the act was beginning to gel musically, but the four vocalists felt that something was lacking, and so we all assembled one morning at a London rehearsal room where our act was freshly ‘produced’ by Liverpudlian Hal Carter. Quite what qualified this one-time road manager for Billy Fury to ‘produce’ the act was never explained, but Hal proceeded to advise the four front men how to stand and how to move during each song. Shortly after this we all set sail on a comfortable ship named the Winston Churchill to Denmark where we embarked on a ten-day tour. Thanks to the hit record we received a rapturous welcome, playing to packed houses. Based in Copenhagen, we spent any spare time in the Star Club, which featured a bar/restaurant on the ground floor, live bands on the first floor, and a disco on the top floor. Carlo and I would sit for hours in the bar, where the music was piped through from the disco, the resident jockey playing great artists such as Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, and a terrific band called Kenny Rogers and the First Edition.

 

Psychedelia was taking off in a big way in tandem with the new ‘flower-power’, making the whole music scene even more diverse. Eastern influences were also at work, with sitars being featured on records, and groups and audiences alike wearing Afghan coats and kaftans. The four singers in our band went the whole hog with bells, beads and assorted kaftans. I felt slightly uncomfortable with this, sticking with the paisley shirts and silk neckerchief, but Carlo went all out with an assortment of kaftans and a large brass bell hung around his neck on a leather thong. With the success of the Danish gigs, several extra shows were added, resulting in three gigs on one particular night. The financial opportunity was too good to miss, so we all agreed to help Mark with the equipment after each show. The next day saw us hit the road early as we had a long drive to the next gig. We noticed how many how many passing cars were sounding their horns, with drivers waving at us, boosting our egos as we enjoyed the recognition, only to come down to earth with a crash when we discovered the real reason for their attention. Several miles back, Carlos two bass drums lay in a field, where they had landed after roiling off the roof of the truck. Mark had failed to secure the ropes holding them down. Naturally Carlo had a few choice words with the crestfallen roadie, but a close examination showed that no damage had occurred, so the incident was soon forgotten.

 

Nick, Carlo, and Bill as the van tries to leave them behind
Nick, Carlo, and Bill as the van tries to leave them behind

Not long after this episode, we almost came to grief whilst travelling at high speed along a narrow two-way road. Mark was indulging in his favourite practice of looking behind into the back of the van whilst making a point of conversation when we came across a broken down vehicle on our side of the road. At 70 mph it was too late for Mark to pull up, and with a stream of traffic in opposite lane, disaster was imminent! With admirable skill Mark executed a swift right turn, jumping the truck over a deep ditch, and then tearing through a dense hedge to land safely in a corn field. We all rattled around inside the van but no one was hurt except Ged Peck who took the full weight of the Hammond organ as it fell on him! Dusting ourselves down, we straightened up the van interior and, with Ged nursing his bruised ribs, Mark drove along the edge of the field until he found the entrance, and we proceeded on our way.

 

One memorable night found us arriving at our Danish hotel extremely tired and hungry, having travelled for most of the day and having eaten very little. The hotel foyer had a magnificent tableau featuring stuffed wild animals and birds around a pond. Billy Day, sporting his newly acquired silver-topped walking cane, took a closer look, as Carlo Little asked the man at reception if we could have some sandwiches. The man explained in broken English that the kitchen was locked and that he didn’t have the key. On hearing this, Bill whacked the stuffed bear as hard as he could with his cane, resulting in a huge cloud of fur and sawdust, and then swiftly moved to the pink flamingo. ”The key”, snarled Bill, “or the bird is next!” Suddenly the porter managed to find the key, and we gratefully tucked into a feast of crusty bread and cheese. The memory of Bill swinging his cane close to the flamingo’s stick-thin legs is one that I’ll always treasure.

 

Soon we set off on what was probably the very last package tour of its kind in this country. Package tours were so named because they featured half a dozen or so acts of varying popularity, and had developed from the early music hall variety tours, featuring a mixture of different entertainers. Because of the number of artists featured, the time allowed each act was usually short, with the top of the bill traditionally getting the longest performance. During the 1950’s, rock n’ roll performers were usually given only a token spot, playing alongside jugglers, fire-eaters, comedians, magicians and animal acts! By the Sixties, however, the demand for rock n’ roll and pop music was gathering, and so such tours became prolific, often featuring U.S. Stars as bill-toppers. This then was the heyday of the musical package tour. As the end of the decade advanced, however, music groups and singers became unwilling to play sets sometimes as short as ten or fifteen minutes, a fact that led to a very ugly scene on the opening night of our tour.

 

We opened at the Finsbury Park Astoria, one of four huge entertainment palaces designed by famous architect Edward A. Stone in the 1920’s. The acts consisted of band named Micky Finn, then Art (later to be renamed Spooky Tooth), a new U.S. group called Vanilla Fudge who had a hit single with a reworking of the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hanging On”, the Flowerpot Men, Keith West and Tomorrow, riding high with a hit single “Excerpt From A Teenage Opera”, and the bill-toppers Traffic, formed by ex-Spencer Davis Group vocalist Steve Winwood.

 

Vanilla Fudge
Vanilla Fudge

Our spot was to close the first half of the show. The act was warmly received and our first night went smoothly, the only disappointment being the theft of cash from our dressing room by a sneak thief! Shortly after the programme started though, I was to witness a performance which changed my approach to music forever. I didn’t bother to listen to the other acts as I figured I had plenty of opportunity to do this over the next few weeks, and besides it was important to me to have a last minute run through of my own parts. It was whilst doing so that Carlo Little burst into the dressing room in a very excited state, insisting that I come to the wings quickly to witness the “American Blokes” as he called them. We listened and watched in awe as Vanilla Fudge gave a stunning performance, ripping through their songs with such power, attack and panache, their vocal harmonies making the hair rise on the back of the neck. Never, since seeing the Graham Bond Organisation had we heard such a mighty rhythm section as Tim Bogert on bass and Carmine Appice on drums, almost attacking their instruments! The audience went absolutely wild with appreciation, and I knew that we were watching something rather special.

 

Unfortunately there must have been a breakdown in communication because their set was beginning to over-run, and before they could launch into their hit, “You Keep Me Hanging On”, the curtains began to close. As keyboard player Mark Stein apologised to the crowd, who clearly wanted more, an almighty row erupted backstage with the result that Vanilla Fudge quit the tour there and then! What we did not know in England was that the ‘progressive’ movement in rock music was already kicking off in America, with songs being extended beyond the traditional three or four minute format and solos being performed ad-lib, just as modern jazz players were doing, and so an act such as Vanilla Fudge had little chance of showing their talents in a fifteen minute slot!

 

After our show finished we held an inquest in the dressing room, where all eight performers agreed that for the first night it was pretty good. Carlo and I however had our minds elsewhere, knowing that our style of music was going to change!

 

Following the successful opening night, the tour rumbled on across the country, taking in large theatres in most major towns. With the exception of bill-toppers Traffic, all the bands travelled together on a coach, and a camaraderie soon developed amongst us. The tour manager was a dour Scotsman who left us in no doubt that the coach waited for no-one, a rule which Carlo, Ged, Bill and I tested one morning in the north of England, resulting in our having to hire a taxi cab who drove like hell until we caught up with the tour bus several miles out of town. To alleviate the boredom of touring, practical jokes became the order of the day with a special rivalry developing between Keith West’s group Tomorrow and the four of us.

 

Following stink bombs under the drummer’s foot pedal, and exploding cigarettes being left in their dressing room, their guitarist Steve Howe invited Ged into their room for a drink. Ged accepted a beer and sat down in the seat offered. The chair had been cleverly dismantled and then rebuilt minus screws and nails. The hilarious result left Ged covered in beer, sitting on the floor amid what resembled a pile of match wood. We all agreed that this gag had topped them all, but Ged was hell-bent on revenge. Back stage at one gig, Bill Davidson had discovered a box of shotgun cartridges which he had appropriated for future use. He happily passed them to Ged who proceeded to empty the gunpowder out until he had enough to fill a small paper bag. This was hidden in Tomorrow’s dressing room under the table, with a discreet trail being laid along the wall and under the door. At the right moment, as the group discussed the merits of their performance, Ged lit the trail, resulting in a mighty roar as smoke and flame filled the room! All agreed that this was a great gag, and hostilities died down for the rest of the tour.

 

One hindrance on this type of tour was the abundance of teenage girls who attended the shows, screaming and generally going berserk in their attempts to get at anyone who remotely resembled a musician. I was asked for an autograph by one young lady who then proceeded to rip my silver identity bracelet from my wrist and leg it. I fell down a staircase during the chase but managed to overtake her and retrieve it.

 

On one memorable night I crept out of the venue just prior to curtain-up, together with Spencer Davis who had come to his old band mates in action. As we downed a quick beer in a local pub, a mob of screaming girls tore in. With the help of the landlord we escaped out of the back entrance and ran for the stage door, with the girls in hot pursuit. I got in first, closely followed by Spencer who became trapped with his arms outside the door. The ensuing tug-of-war was won by us, but the sleeve of Spencer’s nice new jacket had parted company with the shoulder!

 

Being constantly on the road generally meant that we had little sleep and ate poor food. The digs were pretty abysmal as well, with the management saving money by booking us into the cheapest accommodation available. The bad diet and lack of sleep often led to a bad stomach and a greasy, spotty complexion, something which Ged and I tried to overcome by purchasing lady’s face packs. It was a hilarious sight to see us resting in the digs, faces whitened by thick face masks! Dry shampoo was another regular purchase to combat greasy, lank hair.

 

As the tour rumbled on, different acts were added to fill the vacant spot left by the departure of Vanilla Fudge, including hit 60’s singer Dave Berry and the new progressive group The Nice. By this time there was definitely a feeling that the music scene was changing. The pop bubble had burst and musicians generally seemed to be dissatisfied, with the most high profile people striving to create more meaningful material. Traffic themselves, although enjoying several successful single records, were spearheading a new scene, where bands would ‘get it together’ in remote cottages where they could be more creative.

 

Bill Davidson seemed to have an aptitude for song-writing, and several attempts were made to do our ‘own thing’, but without concrete success. Carlo, in particular was feeling jaded, as the initial excitement of touring and making good money wore off, leaving him still harbouring hopes of a reunion with Ritchie Blackmore, and working in Germany as was once planned. It was about two thirds of the way through the tour that Bill went into hospital for an operation, having suffered from chronic tonsillitis for years. To fill the gap we had several stand-in keyboard players, usually supplied by Southern Music Publishers, although none of them measured up to Bill, until one day a tall thin man with a moustache arrived. His name was Jon Lord. We both felt that we had met before, and when he told me that he had played with West London band the Artwoods, I realised that I had bumped into him late one night at the Shepherd’s Bush pie stall with Johnny Kidd. Whilst not as flamboyant a player as Bill, it was obvious that he was an excellent musician and so he became a permanent member of the band until Bill’s return.

 

By now the four vocalists had been in the recording studio making the follow-up single to “Let’s Go To San Francisco”, another Carter-Lewis composition called “A Walk In The Sky”. The fact that they had not used their own band in the studio became a sore point, particularly with Carlo, and it was obvious to us that we were only regarded as sidemen. By now it was also obvious that Bill Davidson would probably never rejoin us. I had struck up a rapport with new addition Jon lord, who confided in me that he had been offered the job of musical director to the Flowerpot Men, which he was considering. This was a turning point in Jon’s life. After several years pinning his hopes of success on the Artwoods, it was now apparent that the band was in trouble. A relaunch as The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, with a new single release, had died a death and Jon knew that the group’s days were numbered. A job with us was now a welcome boost to his finances. Soon, following a few one-nighters with Jon Lord on Hammond organ, we were off to Germany to play a week at the Blow-Up Club in Munich, with the promise of a show being recorded live. Mark departed at this time and we were given a new road manager, Dave Kaye, who I had last seen as a singer with the Downbeats, the group formed by Rich Bennett after the Renegades, which had also featured the great Micky Keane on guitar.

 

It was good to see Dave again and we reminisced happily as we drove through Germany towards Munich. Jon had kept himself aloof from the rest of us, probably to avoid being considered part of the ‘backing group’, and so protecting his bargaining power with the singers. He had managed to secure himself a seat on the aircraft carrying the four vocalists to Munich, thus avoiding the overland slog in the bandwagon. After a few miles a red light on the Ford Transit dashboard told us that the engine fan belt had snapped. Of course our new road manager had not thought to pack a spare, and he became the subject of much abuse as we limped along with steam pouring from the engine bay. Luckily we were close to a small village where the obliging local mechanic searched through a vast collection of new and second-hand belts until one was found to be a reasonable fit. Assured that we would make it to Munich, Dave promised to buy a replacement belt plus a spare as soon as possible.

 

The ‘Blow-Up’ Club was situated in an old cinema. Several bands played where the lower stalls once were, whilst the top band played upstairs in the balcony (minus seats), an odd situation with the audience below and behind. It was during this week-long engagement that one show was recorded, but the result was deemed unsatisfactory and the recording was scrapped. By now Jon, Ged, Carlo and I were playing three or four songs on our own, before introducing the four vocalists. We invariably kicked off with “Wade In The Water” and “I Want You”, both tunes lifted note for note from Graham Bond’s Sound of ’65 album. Ged would follow up with “It Was A Very Good Year”, a heavy take on the Della Reece version of the song. Carlo had found a little-known shuffle from Marvin Gaye on his tape recorder called “Some Kinda Wonderful”, which I made a passable attempt at singing. Several years later this song was a huge hit for Grand Funk Railroad, and we were amazed (and kicking ourselves) when we heard how identical it sounded to our version!

 

The Flowerpot Men, 1967
The Flowerpot Men, 1967
"Sundial" outside the Blow-Up Club, Jan 29th 1968. L-R Ged Peck, Carlo Little, Jon Lord. Front - Nick Simper
“Sundial” outside the Blow-Up Club, Jan 29th 1968. L-R Ged Peck, Carlo Little, Jon Lord. Front – Nick Simper

We soon noticed that the German audiences reacted very enthusiastically to our own short set, a fact which did not go unnoticed by the four singers, who informed us that we were only to play the one instrumental before introducing them. Sadly it was becoming obvious that the cracks were beginning to appear in the relationship between musicians and singers. However, this was a marvellous boost to our confidence. After-show chats with members of the audience led us to discover that generally they disliked the high falsetto vocals of the Flowerpot Men, saying that the sounded like women, not men! I think it was the Munich experience that made us realise that we had the ability to create our own sound and direction, lifting us above the stigma of being mere side-men! The four singers had also suggested that we had our own name, further reinforcing our position as backing musicians. I came up with the name The Sundial, which was considered a suitably hippy title, and soon adopted. Whilst in Munich, the four of us posed for a couple of photos, in order to establish a separate identity from the four singers.

 

In spite of our songs being cut, we had enjoyed the trip immensely and had a lot of fun, ending with Carlo and myself rolling a snowball home from a pub, which grew to a height of about 3 feet by the time we reached the hotel, then rolled it into the lift, travelling up along the corridor where it was rolled into Ged’s bed! Puerile stuff, but it seemed hilarious at the time! The last night of our trip was soured though, when the resident friendly DJ named Dieter left early without saying goodbye. Unfortunately Carlo had handed over a good portion of his wardrobe to Dieter, who seemed extremely keen to purchase as much “hippy” gear as possible, promising to pay at the end of the gig. Carlo had learned the hard way never to trust a smooth talker!

 

It was decided that we would save one night’s hotel bill by leaving straight after the last show and travelling overnight to the ferry. As we left the lights of Munich behind, I checked that Dave had got a spare fan belt. He assured me that he had not one, not two, but three spare belts, so we all relaxed as we sped down the autobahn through the snow-covered countryside. We had probably travelled about 150 miles when the dreaded red light appeared on the dash once more. Dave had not bothered to fit one of his spare belts, hoping that the one fitted on the way over would see us home. Worse news was to follow, when he discovered that his three new belts only fitted German Fords, not British ones. As the realisation dawned that we were stranded somewhere in Germany at three o’clock on a freezing morning, Dave was immediately hit with an explosion of verbal abuse.  Carlo was consumed with rage, announcing that he would thumb a lift home. Grabbing his suitcase he set off along the hard shoulder with his thumb held out. “What about the drums?” someone shouted. “F—k the drums!” was Carlo’s reply. I ran after Carlo to try and change his mind, catching up with him just as a vehicle pulled up. What luck! Our Good Samaritan not only spoke English, he was driving a recovery truck! We explained our problem and in no time the friendly driver had winched our van up behind and we all squashed into the cab.

 

As dawn broke we found ourselves dropped outside a Ford garage situated in a tiny snow-bound village deep in rural Germany. Our saviour explained that the garage would open at 8 o’clock, meanwhile he would introduce is the owner of a local bar who he felt sure would allow us to wait on the premises for a while. As we walked down the tiny main street, curious villagers stared from windows at the strange long-haired creatures, one even aiming a camera in disbelief! The bar owner agreed to open his premises to us, serving tea and toast as we gratefully settled down as close as possible to the stove. We bid farewell to the recovery truck driver and promptly fell asleep in the warmth of the bar. Suddenly we were rudely awakened by the sound of a police klaxon as a police car arrived outside, apparently alerted by a villager who labelled us as vagrants! The policemen spoke little English, but were pacified by the sight of our passports. Unfortunately Ged Peck had left his in the van and so was immediately taken to the local police station, to languish in a cell until we could produce his passport and collect him! With the van re-belted and the battery recharged, we picked up Ged and set off for the ferry once more, arriving back home without further mishap. It would be sometime though before our new road manger would be allowed to forget our German trip!

Chapter 15   Chapter 17