All of them start somewhere and most of them, including me, fail but every so often I think back fondly to the brief career of my teenage band, The Rockin’ Pandas from Skipton in West Yorkshire, which featured yours truly on lead guitar, and my friends Terry Garner on rhythm, John Holmfield on bass and Bob Gumby of drums. John didn’t have a real bass guitar so he and I sort of shared the bass lines on the bottom strings of our regular guitars. Terry, John and Bob all sang. To my ongoing disappointment I was useless in this department.
We formed around 1963 and hung together for almost three years, strictly covers only and semi-pro in that we accepted a pittance for the handful of dates we got. We had a card printed – “The Rockin’ Pandas – Available for Dances, Parties and Special Occasions” – and in keeping with the name wore black shirts and white jeans. We had a picture of a panda on the front of the bass drum.
Our repertoire consisted of instrumentals by the Shadows and others, songs by the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Searchers, and some older R&R and R&B songs, most especially Chuck Berry, almost all of which we’d discovered on early LPs by the Beatles and Stones and their contemporaries like the Animals, Searchers, Hollies etc. Indeed, we played no fewer than 10 non-originals that appeared on the first two Beatles and first Stones albums. I remember mastering ‘Saturday Night At The Duck Pond’, a variation of the theme from Swan Lake, by The Cougars, and ‘Hall Of The Mountain King’, a favourite of instrumental bands, whose theme is borrowed from Greig’s Peer Gynt, but gradually we dropped the instrumentals in favour of songs. We always began our first set with ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and closed the final set with ‘Twist And Shout’. I suppose we had about thirty songs in all, and my favourites were ‘You’d Better Move On’, ‘Bring It On Home To Me’ and ‘All My Loving’.
John had the best amp, a Selmer 30 watt affair, and a Vox guitar; I had a Futurama 15 watt amp, selected no doubt because it had the same black and gold livery as the celebrated Vox AC 30s used by the Beatles, and a red Futurama III guitar which looked a bit like a Strat, but somewhere along the line I swapped it for a real bass guitar, a Hofner violin like McCartney; and Terry had a Hofner f-hole guitar with a pick-up he’d stuck on himself. Bob’s drum-kit was white with the Pandas logo, make unknown, which he tended to hit it very hard and drown us out. We ‘borrowed’ a hopelessly inadequate PA system from a local youth club and I cannot be sure if it was ever returned.
We rehearsed in our homes, creating a terrible din. We had one or two fairly regular ‘bread and butter’ gigs locally, at Skipton Rugby Club and at the RAF Club. We played at private parties and occasional dances in church halls in the surrounding villages, sometimes supporting older, better-equipped groups, and once – memorably – at a dance at the local comprehensive school in front of about 200, probably our biggest ever audience
Terry was a handsome Lothario with a roving eye but he could be an awkward, arrogant sod. He missed rehearsals, preferring the company of girls to us three, and didn’t maintain his equipment properly. He was always breaking strings and having no replacements and his amp was crap, an old radio that he’d somehow transformed into a piss-poor, tone-free guitar amp. Hence he was always wanting to plug into the superior amps of John and myself, and cadging strings. Nevertheless he was crucial to the group’s line-up as for all his faults he had heaps of confidence and reckless enthusiasm, ‘punk’ qualities that only later did I come to realise were just as important as musicianship in any successful group.
Predictably, Terry was first to leave, the consequence of him having finally and inevitably impregnated one of his many girlfriends. He fled to Leeds where he worked for an insurance company, and rented a flat there with the mother-to-be, but although his departure decisively weakened the group and hastened its demise, in one respect it had unforeseen benefits for me. In his wake he left several despairing girlfriends, two of whom, on the rebound, briefly stepped out on my arm. After Terry left, Bob, John and myself held a few half-hearted rehearsals as a trio with me on bass but it wasn’t the same so the group disbanded.
After that I played lead guitar in a group from Cross Hills called Sandra & The Montanas who played Working Men’s Clubs around Leeds and Bradford, a far more disciplined outfit than the Pandas with a strict rehearsal schedule (and a driver/roadie who owned an old coach), but I was never that friendly with them so I left after a few months. My best memory of them was playing support in some big WMC in Leeds to Bob Monkhouse who told the most outrageously filthy jokes I’d ever heard. Then I played bass a few times for a local soul band, The Black Sheep, whose speciality was a note-for-note duplication of Geno Washington’s Funky Butt Show album. We drove around the Yorkshire Dales in an old hearse. That was fun, but by now I knew I’d never make it as a muso so I packed those dreams away and decided I’d do better writing about it. By now I worked for the Telegraph & Argus in Bradford and it was around this time I suggested to the editor that a rock and pop column, written by me, would boost sales. I don’t know whether it did or not but that was my first step to MM.
Pete Frame dedicated one of his books to ‘anyone who’s ever got into the back of a van to play a gig’, and I’m proud to be say that includes me. Does it include any other RBP bloggers?