Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Trying my hand at the double bass

Martin Newell on the double bass

Martin Newell on the double bass - Credit: Archant

Over the border to perform in Hadleigh, Suffolk. I last played here in the spring of 1973 when I was 20 years old. I was with The Mighty Plod,

Colchester’s answer to The Sweet: if The Sweet had been a question. I remember that the four of us, pouting young lovelies that we were, had to help the roadies haul the gear up the staircase. I also remember the ‘raked’ stage, (sloping downwards slightly) which meant that our drummer needed to chain the kit to his drum stool in order to stop it lurching forwards while we were playing.

Back in those days, the job of bands like us was to provide a soundtrack for burly young chaps from rival villages to glower at each other, while competing for the attentions of rosy-cheeked country lasses, many of whom were busy looking at us.

Forty-two years later, early one winter evening, a grey, distinguished-looking fellow returns to Hadleigh. He emerges from the vehicle hesitantly, almost as if it were a faulty time machine. Still handsome in late middle-age, the stranger, who has the charisma of an Edwardian actor-manager is an elegant dude. Women of a certain age turn their heads as he passes, fastening pale hands on still-girlish hearts. “Crikey! Who’s he?” one of them asks. “No idea, Lady,” I gurgle, swigging from a bottle of red as the man edges past me.

The Hosepipe Band and I are performing at Hadleigh Folk Club. This is the first of a small handful of pre-Christmas gigs. Nothing too strenuous, you understand. Each event consists of me reading my two long pieces: The Song of The Waterlily and Black Shuck. These recitations are accompanied by the band’s own compositions, played on an eclectic selection of instruments, including hurdy-gurdy, mandola, border pipes, sax, hammer-hit dulcimer, upright bass and piano. It really does sound quite exotic in an olde English way. I’m here mainly to recite and narrate. I bung in an occasional harmony but this time there are none of the stage antics of yore. I’m still being careful after recent eye surgery.

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On one musical piece, however, Nelson the double bass player moves over to guitar, leaving the double bass unmanned.

During summer rehearsals it wasn’t long before I became curious as to how playing a stand-up bass might differ say, from playing the fretless acoustic which I’m used to. I soon found out. It’s like driving a great big lorry when you’ve only ever driven a family runabout. Although I’m not quite Charlie Mingus yet I am now just about managing my one cameo role on the double bass.

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It’s all quite a holiday for me, going out to perform for these polite and likeable folk audiences. Folk clubs tend to be held in venues where, mostly, you can put things down without fear of them being nicked. There are no punch-ups. Nor are folk clubs the kinds of places where the management blasts out ghastly music at every gap in the proceedings.

Wherever you go nowadays, not just in music venues but clothes shops, and even banks, there always seems to be some lunatic, intent on deafening you rather than allowing even two seconds of silence.

I remember, 20 years ago, after a 13-hour flight from London, as band members climbed exhausted into the tour van at Tokyo’s Narita airport, the Japanese roadie immediately slung a Uriah Heep cassette on the system, full blast. “Can we not have that, please?” I asked, handing him my own cassette. A few seconds later, on came the civilising strains of Jack Payne and the BBC Dance Orchestra 1929-1931. Now that’s what you need after a long flight over Mongolia, rather than the sound of somebody rolling two dustbins down an unlubricated escalator, which, let’s face it, is what so much music nowadays sounds like.

Back in Hadleigh, the Hosepipe Band are setting up to play. Tonight’s venue is the Ansell Centre in Market Place, a mere maraca-throw from the Guild Hall, where I played in 1973. It’s a nice big room, Georgian at guess, which despite a high ceiling has reasonable acoustics. Hadleigh, a lovely little town, is the birthplace of my namesake, the late Patrick Newell (no relation) who played the spymaster ‘Mother’ in The Avengers TV series. It’s also the home of two members of the Hosepipe Band, as well as those loveable ‘extreme metal’ musicians, Cradle of Filth. I love that, don’t you? Cradle of Filth who wrote ‘Funeral In Carpathia’ and ‘The Black Goddess Rises’ were formed here in Hadleigh.

The question I ask myself, when calculating a town’s general niceness is “could they set a cosy Sunday evening TV drama starring Sarah Lancashire and Pam Ferris here?” In Hadleigh’s case, the answer is a most emphatic yes.

Back at the Folk Club, our guest artist is the amiable Phil Lyons, a stunning acoustic guitarist, with an entire half-hour set, all on the subject of hard done-by sailors in Nelson’s navy.

I know I often joke about the folk fraternity’s penchant for hard done-by sailor songs but I do actually enjoy them sometimes. As for the Hosepipe Band, I’ll only be doing a few performances with them for now, so book early to ensure disappointment.

Martin Newell and The Hosepipe Band will be at The John Peel Centre in Stowmarket tonight and at Colchester Arts Centre, next Thursday evening.

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