BACK STAGE IN THE SIXTIES
Life back stage at pop shows in the Swinging Sixties was always a hoot. Looking back it’s fun to recall how casual and relaxed it all was in the days before laminates, security men and ‘approval.’ For example, all I had to do to gain access backstage at the Slough Adelphi to see the Rolling Stones was to utter the secret pass word ‘Hello I’m Chris from Melody Maker’ . I’d promptly be given the freedom of the building by a disinterested bloke, probably reading the Slough Gazette’s pigeon racing page, sitting in a cubicle at the stage door. ‘They’re in the dressing room mate. Tell ‘em to turn that racket down will you?’ The racket would be the sound of Brian Jones scampering about, laughing loudly and discussing the art of nose picking. Not something that would make a front page MM story granted but an insight into the less salubrious side of Rhythm & Blues.
Having seen the blond haired pop idol indulge in his favourite past time, I never quite shared the nation’s affection for him again. But hey, Slough on a wet Thursday night, how else are you going to pass the time?
Much more entertaining was going back stage at the Finsbury Park Astoria, that later became the Rainbow Theatre. I was there in 1967 to report on an amazing pop package show that included the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cat Stevens, the Walker Brothers, Traffic and Englebert Humperdinck. Quite what sort of brain storming session decided these artists would make a good match, is hard to imagine, and yet somehow it all worked. The audiences screamed and yelled and the theatre was packed. But then most of the fans were 15 year old girls who had seen the acts on ‘Top Of The Pops’ so it was a true ‘People’s Pop Fest’ as our former Prime Minister might have sagely observed.
The grandly named Astoria was a vast, gloomy and dusty old cinema and I roamed the labyrinth of corridors and tiny ‘dressing rooms’ searching for stars to interview. More like undressing rooms as far as the Jimi Hendrix Experience were concerned. I found all three clad only in their underwear engaging in what looked like an American college fraternity initiation ceremony. They were chasing each other, spraying clouds of deodorant and giggling like schoolgirls. Meanwhile, my old NME pal Keith Altham was busy plotting with Chas Chandler to set Jimi’s guitar on fire with the discrete use of cigarette lighter fuel.
After a chat with Jimi (who kept his incendary plans secret), I found Scott Walker hiding behind the huge stage curtains and avoiding his manager. ‘Offensive isn’t he!’ he proclaimed loudly within earshot of the said party. Leaving Scott grinning mischieveously I said ‘hi’ to my old drinking partner Cat Stevens. (We used to down slugs of vodka in the Red Lion, years ago Guv’nor). I’m exaggerating for comic effect. In fact Cat and I only drank the odd Black Russian and thereafter he became teetotal and a highly spiritual person. I like to think I may have had some influence on his future life choices.
Escaping from the gloom of the Astoria (it was late afternoon and they hadn’t switched the houselights on), I went with Englebert Humperdinck to a transport cafe where we had egg and chips and mugs of hot sweet tea. A far cry from the luxurious life style he later espoused. I had first met Englebert at a Belgian talent contest where I judged him the winner and set him on the road to stardom. It was my ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ moment. So ‘Bert’ and I rubbed shoulders with the local bus drivers as we devoured slices of burnt buttered toast and discussed his future. ‘Go for the rock audience Bert,’ I advised. ‘Set your trousers on fire with lighter fuel.’ Mercifully he ignored my admonitions and became the balladeer we know and love to this day.
I was shocked when at showtime Jimi’s guitar really did catch fire and it wasn’t until years later Keith owned up that it was all his idea. Incidentally the London music press folk were all mates in those days, with no rivally at all, except in terms of getting exclusive stories like ‘Elvis to tour’ and ‘Rockin Berries Cancel Boston Glyderdrome Fest’. Back to the guitar burning. I remember the audience staring in wonderment as the compere Nick Jones rushed on stage in a panic, getting his hand burnt as attempts were made to put out the flames with an extinguisher. No worries about health and safety in those days.
But ‘back stage’ was not always such a riot of flames and underwear. James Brown at the Brixton Astoria sat quietly in his dressing room and courteously answered my questions, claiming that – sure he screamed while singing: ‘But I always scream in tune.’ He told me this while crouched over the glowing bars of a red hot electric fire. (It was a warm summer’s day). I only realised the significance of this eccentricity later at showtime, when sex machine James came rushing on stage – already dripping in sweat. Showbiz- doncha love it?
Sometimes being ‘on stage’ was actually more entertaining than grovelling about in green rooms that hadn’t been decorated by the theatre owners since 1934. In the era when rock stars had fun (when they were still poor and unburdened by OBEs) it was not unknown for impromptu jam sessions to break out. And so Robert Plant and I invaded the stage at the Royal Albert Hall and began hammering out an Elvis Presley rock’n'roll medley to a bemused audience one drunken night out. No I can’t quite believe that happened either.
Well you see your honour Led Zeppelin had a box at the Albert Hall to watch Iron Butterfly’s show where several cases of champagne were consumed, courtesy of Atlantic Records (thank you Phil). As the Americans finished their wildly acclaimed set it seemed only good manners to storm on the stage and congratulate them. And if I started to play Butterfly’s drum kit and Robert snatched the mike and began singing at the top of his voice, who was going to stop us? Only an extremely angry Iron Butterfly road crew.
So that was another ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ moment, ended amidst a barrage of metaphorical hooting. Thrown off stage at the Royal Albert Hall with Robert Plant…at least it wasn’t the O2.