Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Our life on the road was part adventure but part education

Rick Wakemans documentary Tales From The Tour Bus brought back fond memories of life on the road as

Rick Wakemans documentary Tales From The Tour Bus brought back fond memories of life on the road as a young rocker.

Someone mentioned to me that there seemed to be rather a lot of TV programmes, now available, catering mainly for the older male rock fan.

Having taken of late to watching such fare, I can confirm that this is true. Some of it I can do without. There are many rather dull rock bands who’ve been retrospectivised to death. One thing which has surprised me, however, is the sheer amount of good quality film footage, made at the time of now-obscure rock acts. Only now is it available to view. Why weren’t we treated to it at the time?

From the mid 1960s to the early 1980s, arguably the creative zenith of British rock, when we consider how much music was being made, there was very little of it actually on TV.

There was always Top of the Pops, of course. TOTP was a essentially a children’s programme controlled by an unholy alliance of record company pluggers and oddly-behaved DJs. As a music-obsessed teenager, I’d sit there snarling at TOTP in rage and disbelief while the programme’s producers consistently favoured what I considered to be rubbish records over good ones.

At some point in the early 1970s, the BBC suddenly woke up, realising that there was an audience of young rock fans who now regarded Top of the Pops as the music of the enemy. Like an ageing auntie trying to prove that she wasn’t really ‘square’ they began broadcasting a weekly show on BBC 2. Naturally it was tucked away just before the Epilogue. Disco 2 – I have no idea why they called a rock music show by that name – was too little and too late but it was better than nothing.

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Disco 2 was quickly succeeeded by The Old Grey Whistle Test. Filmed in the sterile confines of a small studio, without a live audience, the Whistle Test managed to neutralise any potential excitement generated by its guest acts by simply not providing any of the electronic reverb or echo essential to rock music. The resulting sound was dull, flat and very unlike a live experience. It was rock’n’roll in lab-controlled conditions.

Again, however, it was better than nothing. Groups of music-starved oiks like me clustered around monochrome TV sets after the pub, smoking like troopers and barracking the posh hippy presenters. Since it was only shown once a week, though, and rarely repeated, you daren’t miss it. The only other time that you’d see rock on TV during those vibrant years would be if they screened an Omnibus documentary on a major star – usually a dead one.

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Only now does it emerge that the BBC and other programme makers were sitting on tons of perfectly good footage of bands and singers. They just didn’t show much of it. Even more footage, it now transpires, was erased for thrift’s sake.

Only now do we get to see various rock acts filmed in their early days – indeed, our early days – when they were still working in small clubs. It’s sometimes fascinating to see how how un-coiffed and just how young they often looked. I watched footage of the precociously-talented Free, for instance: three of them barely out of their teens, one actually still a teenager. No image-makers ever got near these people. They appear to have just staggered dazed out of the tour-van and then tumbled into the studio. Viewed now they seem guile-less and affectingly shy. We never saw this stuff in the days of 3-channel British TV. I can’t be the only old wreck currently being mesmerised by the sight of people, some of them now legends, whom I once saw performing mere feet away from where I stood.

The best show of all, recently, one which I couldn’t stop watching, was Rick Wakeman’s Tales From The Tour Bus. The documentary was Rick’s hugely affectionate look at what life on the road was like for young rockers, from the late 1950s to the early 1980s. As a singer in working bands between 1973 and 1979, I was part of that intake.

Tour vans featured on the programme included Austin J2s and J4s, Commers and of course the good old 13cwt long-wheelbase, Ford Transit. This was the conveyance in which your correspondent and his bandmates travelled. Our roadies had converted the van so that the gear went into a safely partitioned-off section at the back.

In the front seats sat the two roadies and the most-sensible band member. In the back row, on comfortably-knackered old Rover seats went the noisier boys. Tellingly, I never graduated to the front seats. From my corner seat behind the driver I held counsel, sang filthy songs, read books, theorised about being famous, lived on cold tinned spaghetti and slept for hours. We travelled as far afield as Sunderland, Leeds, and Halifax, frequently playing remote RAF bases from Suffolk north to Lincolnshire. For small-town Colchester boys, it was a real adventure. I was barely 20. The drummer was only 17. We had the time of our lives and having either stormed out of school, or been thown out earlier, now received an education of sorts.

We learned the geography of England, for instance: mainly late at night, often on country B-roads. We learned to work as a unit. We learned basic finances and roughly, how to look after ourselves and each other. Young bands don’t have those sorts of adventures nowadays. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

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