Citizen Smith (originally posted 29/9/13)
By ProgBlog, Mar 28 2014 08:08PM
I graduated to full time employment at the National Blood Transfusion Service Centre at Tooting in September 1981, having spent the summer lazing around Streatham. Tooting was a short bike ride away and I even used to cycle from Streatham up to Paddington Green for my one day a week post graduate course in laboratory practice. Tooting wasn’t a particularly beautiful area, but neither was Streatham; however it did have a number of things going for it. There used to be an independent record store on the right hand side heading from Tooting Broadway towards Tooting Bec on Upper Tooting Road where amongst other things I bought the rather obscure Jack Knife album, a 1978 collaboration between John Wetton and Richard Palmer-James, recorded in Munich over 10 days and featuring songs that the pair used to cover when they were in Tetrad together. Tooting indoor market was home to Swan’s second hand book store; the Woolworth’s, opposite Tooting Broadway tube station where Wolfie Smith would shout “power to the people”, not only sold a nice slice of cheesecake from the delicatessen counter but had a remarkably decent record selection. I’d not been working for a full month when Discipline, the first of the reformed King Crimson albums was released (22/9/1981) and I bought that from Tooting Woolworth’s. They used to have a bargain cassette bin and over time I picked up Caravan’s Better by Far; Zero Time by TONTOs Expanding Headband; Steve Hackett’s second and fifth solo albums Please Don’t Touch and Cured; Electric Savage by Colosseum II; the eponymous first Isotope album; Neil Ardley’s Kaleidoscope of Rainbows; and The Power and the Glory by Gentle Giant. They had reduced price 12 inch Asia singles with Roger Dean picture sleeves that I bought for a couple of girlfriends. One of these women is now my wife, and we’ve still got her single – The Smile Has Left Your Eyes b/w Lying to Yourself and Midnight Sun. It was in Woolworth’s that I became fascinated by Marillion’s Script for a Jester’s Tear which I frequently held in my hands but never bought, reminiscent of school days in Barrow.
There was also a musical instrument shop on Mitcham Road which may have been called Session Music. This had a mark II Mellotron against the wall as you came in through the door and a classic Mellotron 400-D in the window. When I was a student I’d passed up a couple of chances to buy very nice second-hand Fender Precision bass guitars; one in a shop in Sidcup, close to my hall of residence, and one when I was visiting student friends Eric Whitton and Guy Wimble in Bristol. These would have blown a term’s worth of grant, leaving me nothing left to live on, and though I don’t regret the decision, it would have been rather nice to have owned one of those instruments. The 400-D posed another problem. The asking price was around one month’s salary and though I’d recently acquired my first credit card to help me tour northern Europe by train for a month, money was still tight. But it was the sheer impracticality of owning such a beast. How would I get it home? How would I move it around, not yet owning any form of vehicle or even being able to drive? Where would it be stored? ‘Home’ was a series of dodgy bedsits in and around Streatham, Balham and later Gypsy Hill. I wasn’t even in a band! One lunchtime, accompanied by Jim (who had also got a job at the Transfusion Centre) I went into the shop and tried it out, playing the piano introduction to ‘I Get Up, I Get Down’ from Close to the Edge on a strings setting, and variations on a melody line from Tangerine Dream’s live album Ricochet using the flute selection. Holding chords involved adding inversions and sevenths but the most incredible thing about it was the feel – it may have been heavy and clunky and you could feel the mechanism when you depressed the keys - but it really was an awesome instrument. I seem to recall that there was a second set of tapes available which also took up lots of space. If owning it had been practical in any way I’d have bought it but it really wasn’t practical. In 1984 I bought a home electronic organ for £15 from a junk shop around the corner from my basement flat in Colby Road – I needed to solder some contacts to get all the keys to work and it sounded quite good when played through my fuzz wah pedal – but this instrument, not quite as big as the Mellotron and about a tenth of the weight, had to be left behind when I did a moonlight flit from that particular flat, because it was impractical to take with me. Ten or so years later, some Mellotrons were on display at one of the King Crimson playback events at the Hotel Intercontinental, Hyde Park Corner. The asking price for a reconditioned instrument was of the order of fifteen times what I’d have paid.
The rise of neo-prog coincided with my time at the Transfusion Centre and I picked up the Garden Party single by Marillion and Golden Earrings b/w 665 The Great Bean by The Enid (released 1980) from a shop on Streatham High Road where I also bought a coverless copy of ELP’s triple live album Welcome back my Friends for £3. (I believe this shop was close to Prentis Road but I’m prepared to be wrong.) I went to see The Enid a few times during this period but never managed to get to see Marillion. Robert John Godfrey was happy to share a bill with Pendragon and Solstice (the Ace, Brixton, 11/5/83) but denounced Marillion at the Dominion Theatre show (12/11/83). The Enid had been reduced to a trio playing with what I could only describe as background tapes and apart from a couple of early numbers, I wasn’t over enamoured by the Brixton show. My letters to Tony suggest the Dominion concert was better, but the next time I went to see them, performing The Key at the Hammersmith Odeon was better still.
The Dominion Theatre became a regular haunt, with its comfy seats and decent acoustics, but it was never full. I could choose where I sat for Bill Nelson’s Invisibility Exhibition which was a genuine multi-media event. Supported by Richard Jobson reciting “I Remember Thomas” and Frank Chickens (who were awful but amusing), the archetypal art rocker was on brilliant form playing guitar, synthesizer and percussion to a backing rhythm and projections of 1950s art films.
The five years I spent at Tooting BTC included attendances at quite a few gigs by a variety of acts, from small pub gigs (Stan Tracey and Don Weller) to Earls Court (Roger Waters) and one stadium gig (Peter Gabriel at Selhurst Park.) I won two tickets to the Genesis gig (30/9/1982) in a quiz, sending in a postcard written in work time with the answer to the question: “On which track did Phil Collins first sing solo?” I asked a number of female work colleagues if they’d attend with me but all declined. I sold my spare ticket to a tout hanging around in the Hammersmith underpass and was delighted to find that no one sat in the seat next to me.
This period coincided with my first concrete display of activism: I was voted in as a union (ASTMS, a forerunner to Unite) representative for the Transfusion Centre and attended a number of rallies. Some of the acts I went to see were not only exceptionally complex and challenging but were also overtly political, collecting money for the Miner’s strike. Even Dave Gilmour sang about the wastefulness of cruise missiles and his support act was the excellent Billy Bragg. I was proud to attach Coal Not Dole stickers to my bass and amp.