A Thousand Dances: Sample

I Rule the Record Club

My mate Eddie had got his pay yesterday afternoon and immediately spent it at Imhof’s record shop. Now he was showing off his prizes to us—Roy, Suzy, me, and of course Luce.

We were sitting on the train-station wall opposite the Cherrystone Ballroom, the one site for live music in St Agnes village. St Ag is only a half-hour’s ride from Paddington Station. You’d never guess it from the worn grey wall and cobblestones, still pitted from a stray Nazi buzz bomb two decades ago. But that summer of 1963, if you’d just turned seventeen, stuffy old England was beginning to hum with enough excitement to seep even into the tree-lined suburbs.

“Single from Joe Brown.” Eddie handed it around in its plain sleeve.

“It’ll have to do, since there isn’t any more Buddy Holly,” I offered.

“What Buddy Holly?” Eddie’s round face creased.

“Don’t you hear it?” said I. “That alternation of major and minor sections? The superfluous backing vocals?”

“But you love Buddy Holly,” said Suzy.

“I didn’t say I didn’t like it. It’s just derivative.”

t was a perfect evening at the end of August. Afternoon rain had left the pavement damp, but now the air was crisp, the cusp between summer and autumn. Trying to be all things to all people, the Cherrystone ballroom offered modern jazz on Tuesday nights and trad on Thursdays. Fridays and Saturdays were the nights for the best music—live rhythm and blues—and drew seventy or eighty local kids.

The owner did manage to book a few talented groups, or at least ones who could imitate the real artistes. The ballroom had all the charm of the cement warehouse it had once been, but it was ours.

The R&B club crowd bolted their tea so as to start admiring—or criticizing—each other by six o’clock every Saturday. By seven, when records started blaring through the PA system, we were queued at the door, eager to pay a shilling a head to pack onto the hard dance floor and bury the week in the music.

Eddie flourished another record. “The Hollies. ‘Searchin’.’ ”

“I liked their first one,” said Roy.

“If all they ever want to do is speed up songs by the Coasters,” I sniffed.

“It’s new this week! How did you already hear it?” Eddie said.

I slung my gaze over at Luce, who was fiddling aloofly with her Kodak Brownie nine  millimetre. “Someone spun it at Marshall’s music shop. I was hanging about waiting for Luce to finish drawing naked people.”

The lads sniggered. “The human body is beautiful and deserves detailed study,” Luce lectured in her superior tone. “Besides”—she half-grinned—“the nudes don’t come in till next term at least. Juveniles.”

Luce—Lucinda Hatchell—is fifteen months older than me and the next thing to my big sister. She’d started art college the autumn before and was now incomprehensible a lot of the time. She was currently consumed by an intensive two-week drawing course in advance of term. She did still condescend to visit the club of a Saturday night, though.

Eddie pulled out another single, Desmond Dekker’s ‘Honour Your Mother and Father.’ “Now that’s good,” I said. “Best pop song I know based on the Ten Commandments!”

“Lady Cherrystone ought to book him here,” Roy suggested.

“Not likely,” I scoffed. “He’s Jamaican, don’t you know?”

“Which is nearly as British as we are,” Luce added, “but I never see Lady C looking at a map.”

She brought her camera up to her eye and focused it on me.“A solemn pronouncement,” I said into her lens. “Desmond Dekker will never play St Agnes. Shame upon us all.”

Eddie elevated a long-player like the Host. “Now you can’t’ve heard this one,” he challenged me.

“James Brown’s Live at the Apollo? Mine’s practically worn out,” I replied, smirking. “I snatched it up at Transat Imports last month.”

Eddie stuffed the records back into his messenger bag, shaking his head indulgently. We’d been having this essential exchange since I founded our secondary-school record

“Don’t I see one more?” Suzy halted him. “Is it silly? Is it Cliff Richard?”

“It’s Pat Boone!” Roy suggested. “His stunning performance on Ready Steady Go! converted you!”

“Oh, shut your cakehole,” said Eddie. “It’s these Northerners.”

He flashed us a shiny new twelve-inch record: Please Please Me. Four floppy-haired Beatles grinned gormlessly down a stairwell.

“Half the blighters in school’ve grown their fringes out like this lot,” Roy complained. “They look like poofs.”

“They were practically giving them away,” Eddie protested too much. “No surprise they top the hit parade.”

They all looked at me. “Their first single’s not bad,” I judged. “Good harmony. Somebody plays a nice mouth organ line.”

“The final word from Nicky Spinnery, one-man Juke Box Jury,” said Luce, filming me. Of course her camera got no sound. It was far over my head why she bothered.

“Did you see that programme last night—Ready Steady Go?” Roy asked.

“As long as they’re booking some rhythm and blues, I’ll watch it,” said I. “If Luce is watching, anyway.” The Hatchells had telly. I swear we were the last house in the village that didn’t.

“I wouldn’t mind meeting that Dusty Springfield in a dark alley—“ Eddie started to say, but his meditation on the charms of Ready Steady Go’s hostess was cut off by the insistent burr of Italian motor scooters.

“Here comes Lord Snooty,” Luce remarked as a crowd of sharp-cut lads swerved into the square, flashing their mirrors. In front was a tall, well-built boy astride the trendiest model of Lambretta scooter, royal blue and chrome. It matched his blazer, white with narrow blue stripes. Black tape on his windscreen proclaimed him Denys Brown.

Denys was the local Face. He’d been dubbed “the Lambretta Trendsetter” by one of the puppylike admirers who doted on such shite as clothes and shoes. A cloud of chicks descended on him as soon as he screeched to a halt. He was sporting a new haircut, centre-parted blow-dried chocolate colour. Next week every lad but me would be wearing it.

Back when his name was plain Dennis, he went to primary school with me. The last class I had with him, he cribbed off my paper and got us both sent to the head teacher. A few weeks later he passed the exam that took him up to the esteemed local grammar school, while I didn’t scrape it and went on to the middling secondary modern. This he tossed in my face twice weekly in the church choir, where he won hearts as lead treble and I mucked about in the alto section. When our voices broke, he still managed to leave me with an unflattering nickname. I never held a grudge towards anyone but Denys Brown.

“You must admit, he does pull it off,” said Suzy apologetically.

“If you think that’s a worthwhile use of your time,” I grumbled. Luce had her camera up filming Denys and his hangers-on. Along with setting the club’s style, they often opened for the contract group. The chicks clamoured to carry in their guitars.

“They’re picturesque,” Luce explained when I jostled her elbow. “Years from now they’ll be museum pieces, and I’ll have the footage.”

“What’s the word on tonight’s group, Nick?” Eddie asked.

I searched my brain for the Detours. I’d been studying the New Musical Express when my peers still thought Beano was the height of culture. “They’re from Acton. They’ve not recorded yet. I think the front man was lead guitarist until recently.”

“So they may be rotten,” said Roy. “Don’t know,” said I. “You should head in if you want to beat the queue. Save me a spot in the big room. I’ll catch up.” Into the square rolled a battered maroon van with a big white arrow painted down the side. Tonight’s headliners were arriving at the last minute.

My mates faded into the queue, and I strolled down the alley behind the ballroom. The van had indeed pulled up at the loading dock that passed for a stage door. Four leather-jacketed lads were piling out with guitars and other gear.

I met a lot of musicians in those days. It was easy. I just offered help and didn’t compete with them. The musos weren’t gods then; they were every kid you knew who’d talked his parents into paying installments on an instrument.

“Hullo, hullo,” I said to the nearest chap. “Welcome to the Cherrystone.”

“You work here?” said he.

“Just a regular. Give you a hand with your kit, though, if you like.”

“As long as it gets inside,” said a square-jawed kid with a wicked smile. “The last stranger who helped us load in tried to make off with the drums. Roger caught him, though.”

“Yeah—I think his casts come off this week,” boasted the indicated Roger. He was a short, broad bloke with an aggressive chin and incongruous blond curls. He smacked the van’s back doors with his palm and they popped open, revealing a mountain of gear and one more boy, long-legged with lank black hair. He handed me a microphone stand, and I reached for an instrument case.

“Don’t touch that,” he ordered. “Take this amp, if you can.”

The amp was enormous but strangely light. For one horrid moment I juggled it, then found my balance. “You want this anywhere in particular?”

“Just against the back wall,” said the long-legged boy. “The way we play, the acoustics don’t much matter.”

“With a stack this size, they’ll hear you in three counties, acoustics or no,” I said.

“You want to know the secret?” said the square-jawed kid. “Only the box is big. The tubes are standard size. Don’t tell.”

“That you exaggerate the size of your equipment?” I bantered, swinging up onto the dock. “How do the birds feel about that?”

This got a whoop of laughter. “No complaints yet!” Roger called.

“About our equipment. The music is another story,” said the long-legged boy. “I’m Peter, by the way. Roger over there. That’s John, Barnsy, and the old man’s Doug.”

“Nick,” I said. “Glad to know you.”

In front of me the stage door opened to show Denys Brown and his loathsome sidekick Andy Drivers framed in the dim light. “Good evening,” drawled Denys. “I’m Denys Brown, lead singer of the Selwyns. I’ll be glad to orient you.”

Long-legged Peter took one giant step onto the dock, followed by the “old man” Doug, who was all of twenty-five.

“That’s qu-quite a st-stack you’ve got here, innit, gents,” remarked Andy, who was habitually amped up himself and had the stammer to prove it. “I’ll bet you’re g-good and l-loud, aren’t ya? Aren’t ya?”

“We’re loud, at any rate,” said Peter, leaning his guitar case gently against the piano and heading back out to the van.

I raised the mic stand to usable height and turned to find Denys’ green eyes narrowed at me. “You’d just love to be onstage, eh, Spindly?” he hissed, sounding just like primary school. “Get out of this and let the professionals handle it.”

“Don’t flatter yourself,” I said.

“Are you not a muso, then, Nick?” said Peter, setting down a second amp. “Does anyone go to a club to hear other blokes play?”

“Me,” I said. “I’d love a job in the music business. But all I play is records. Where’s this go?”

“Bit of drum kit,” said Doug, relieving me of it.

Denys slid between us. “My group the Selwyns are temporarily between drummers—I don’t suppose you’d care to—”

“Right, don’t suppose. Get your own fuckin’ drummer.” Peter had a long face with a threatening beak of a nose, giving him a naturally impatient air. Drummers were hard to come by among youth musicians. Those who could afford a full kit usually wanted to play jazz first, R&B a distant second, and pop last of all. Groups with secure drummers could afford to look—down their noses, as it were—at the Selwyns of the world who didn’t.

“Hear a lot of good groups, Nick?” Barnsy inquired, holding a drum for Doug to screw into place.

“Not out here. Chris Farlowe in the city. The Rolling Stones at the Ricky-Tick in Windsor. Manfred Mann.”

“All the people who poach the same songs we do,” said Peter gloomily. “You reckon stuff from the Blue Beat label, Nick?”

“Sure. We were just talking about Desmond Dekker—”

“Bluebeat is where it’s at,” Denys interjected, popping his gum. “Do you go to the Flamingo?”

“We d-danced there all night last weekend,” Andy added. “Mad, it was, mad, everyone high as fuckin’ k-k-kites!”

Above our heads, the PA crackled to life, the instant good-time sound of the Miracles’ ‘Shop Around.’ Kids, well dressed, ill-dressed, my friends, schoolmates, and neighbours, poured through the front doors and plunged into the current dance craze. The night was underway.