Gone but not forgotten, Live!

Magnum Opus

The grand old Magnum Leisure Centre in Irvine is being pulled down as I type. Local politics and whatnot has seen the building fall gradually into disrepair, an eyesore too far gone for a quick cash injection and 60 minute makeover. They’ve opened a spanking new place in the town centre. It’s impressive ‘n all that, but like for like, it doesn’t come close to what the Magnum offered.

A fixture on Irvine beach since 1976, the Magnum played a formative part in most Irvinites’ growing up. Beyond Irvine, it was known as the place where you were bussed on a school trip; to swim, to skate, to watch the latest blockbuster in its plush 300-seater theatre. If you were that awkward age between being too old to stay in on a weekend night but too young for the pub, the Magnum was your saviour. There’s no-one I know who didn’t go there. Even oor ain Nicola Sturgeon mentioned it on her Desert Island Discs, recalling Frosty’s Ice Disco skating sessions with a misty-eyed fondness.

The Magnum had something for everyone. The Scottish Indoor Bowls championships were held there. Every pedigree dog in the country was shown there at some point. Girls and boys danced at regional shows. Gymnasts tumbled and twirled and twisted their way around the main hall. 80s fitness freaks squashed while the half-hearted badmintoned. All manner of variety shows were held there and crucially, all manner of big, proper, touring bands poured through the doors as quickly as they could be accomodated.

Irvine in the 1980s was a popular place for all your favourite bands to play; The Clash, The Jam, Big Country, Thin Lizzy, Chuck Berry, The Smiths, The Wonderstuff, Madness….. the list is endless, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Willie Freckleton, the local Entertainments Officer who offered up what was at the time the largest indoor concert hall in Europe to the promoters and band managers who deigned which towns were important enough to play. Willie offered the hall rent free, which proved to be the clinching factor most of the time. Amazingly, most of the bands would include Glasgow and Irvine as part of the same tour, something that, since the building of the Hydro on Glasgow’s Clydeside is now unthinkable.

The SmithsBigmouth Strikes Again (live at the Magnum, Sept 22nd 1985)

I believe this was the first time Bigmouth was played live.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

There are a multitude of stories connected to the Magnum, from local folk who were so familiar with the warren of corridors and passageways in the changing areas that they could sneak from the ice disco into the UB40 gig without paying, or the young fans who found themselves receiving mohawks from Clash roadie Kosmo Vinyl after they’d played a terrific London Calling-era ‘Greatest Hits’ gig, not that The Clash ‘did’ greatest hits, but you know what I mean.

I remember the day The Jam came to town. Too young for the show (I didn’t even know it was on) I happened to be at the front of my house as scooter after scooter after scooter buzzed past on their way from Glasgow to the Magnum. A multitude of mirrors, parkas and girls riding pillion, it was just about the most impressive thing I’d seen at that point in my life, something only equalled when I saw The Clash in Irvine Mall on the day of their Magnum show. Four alien-looking guys in denim and leather and black shades, surrounded by a scrum of older folk I recognised from the years above at school. “It’s The Fucking Clash!!!” is what I remember hearing, even if I was unaware exactly who The Fucking Clash were at that point in my life.

Spandau Ballet, photo by Ross Mackenzie

Thrillingly, Ross has snapped loads of bands at the Magnum.

Sadly, this is all he could find!

Willie Feckleton once told me a great story about booking Chuck Berry, his idol and the musician he was most thrilled at having landed to play in Irvine. Chuck, a musical giant who was right there alongside Ike Turner at the birth of rock ‘n roll, a man who is responsible for fashioning the DNA of the rock guitar riff was, by all accounts a thoroughly unpleasant human being. In Irvine he wouldn’t play until he’d first been handed his fee (paid in American dollars, of course) in a brown paper bag in the dressing room before going on stage.

The anonymous support band was also Chuck’s backing group and when Chuck eventually came on he played on about only six songs. He let the other guitarist take most of the solos, looked super-bored throughout and disappeared offstage fairly quickly.”

 

Coming off after the set Willie approached Chuck enthusiastically. “That was great Chuck! They love you out there! How about an encore?

 

Sure,” drawled Chuck with his hands out. “Fo’ anutha’ five hun’red dollas…

 

There was no encore.

It’s stories like those above that live long after the artist has left town and the gig is nothing more than a pre-smartphone blur of exaggerations and half-truths. Did Morrissey really dance with Brian McCourt’s umbrella when The Smiths played? Did Phil Lynott really nip up to George the Barber at the Cross for a quick trim of the ‘fro, mid tour with Thin Lizzy? Who can be certain if they did or didn’t? For cultural and economical terms, it’s a real shame that Irvine no longer has a venue that can be used to entice the big acts of the day to come and play and create memories for our young (and not so young) folk.

These bricks rang!

Gone but not forgotten

Six-String Rule Breakin’, Rule Makin’ Music

Aw man. When rock ‘n roll came kicking and screaming from the womb, Chuck Berry was right there holding the towels and hot water in one hand and a Gibson electric guitar in the other. He was the mother and the father, the granddaddy of them all, the godfather of guitar-based music.


He was the alchemist of The Riff. He was a true poet of popular culture. He was an influence on everyone who ever mattered. Every. One. Answerable to no one and master of all. Fingers longer than the route to the Promised Land itself, they dug the earth, set the foundations and built the house upon which everything followed.


I was at a gig on Saturday night (BMX Bandits. Simply wonderful) and I’d been talking with support act Joe Kane (Google him – he’s worth a feature of his own on here) about the time Chuck played in Irvine.

That was great, Chuck!” enthused the promoter as Chuck left the stage after barely half an hour. “Fancy going back on for an encore?

Sho’ thing, brother,” drawled Chuck, right arm extended, his famous red 335 still hanging freely from his neck. “…………fo’ nutha five hun’red dollars.

There was no encore.

Five minutes after our conversation, Joe ran through to tell me he’d just heard Chuck Berry had died. A bizarre coincidence.

If only we’d known an hour or so ago.. ” he continued, genuinely upset, “That would’ve been the set closer sorted.”

Someone else asked in all seriousness, “Chuck Berry? What did he sing again?” Boggle-eyed, I replied;

He sang about love.

Chuck BerryNadine

As I got on a city bus and found a vacant seat,

I thought I saw my future bride walkin’ up the street

I shouted to the driver, ‘Hey conductor!’ you must

Slow down I think I see her, please let me off the bus

Nadine, honey is that you?

He sang about life.

Chuck BerryYou Never Can Tell

They bought a hi-fi phono and boy did they let it blast! 

700 little records, all rock and rhythm and jazz.”

He sang about heartbreak.

Chuck BerryMaybelline

Maybelline, why can’t you be true?

Oh Maybelline, why can’t you be true?

You’ve just started doin’ the things you used to do.”

He sang of coolerators and automobiles and girls and goodtimes and made America sound fantastic and wonderful and like the far-off land of all your dreams. In a post-war bombed-out and still shell-shocked Britain, it’s not hard to see why Keith Richards, Jimmy Page et al were totally taken with Chuck.

Chuck BerryBack In The USA



Oh well, oh well, I feel so good today

 We just touched ground on an international runway

Jet propelled back home, from over the seas to the U. S. A.

New York, Los Angeles, oh, how I yearned for you

Detroit, Chicago, Chattanooga, Baton Rouge

Let alone just to be at my home back in ol’ St. Lou

 

Did I miss the skyscrapers, did I miss the long freeway?

From the coast of California to the shores of the Delaware Bay

You can bet your life I did, till I got back in the U. S. A.”

From mods to rockers, glams to punks, Chuck fuelled ’em all. Marc Bolan would go on to steal the vocal adlib of Little Queenie for Get It On. I suspect you knew that already though.

Chuck BerryLittle Queenie

It’s not just what he sang, it’s how he sung it. And it’s not what he played, it’s how he swung it. The DNA of all rock music starts right here;

Chuck BerryJohnny B Goode.

By all accounts a most unpleasant human being, remember him instead for the most beautiful and perfect two-string riffing, three-chord swinging, six-string rule-breaking, rule-making music.

Cover Versions, Gone but not forgotten

Goode and Bad

The blues had a baby and they called it rock ‘n roll. Standing expectantly with the forceps may have been Ike Turner, and on hand with the hot water and towels was Little Richard, but there, straight outta the womb came a duck walkin’, smart talkin’ Chuck Berry, sly grin on the side of his mouth and holding a cherry red Gibson with a hand span as wide as the Mississippi.

chuckwalk

He sang of motorvatin’ in shark-finned Cadillacs, of Coolerators and TV dinners, of a life so technicolour and otherworldly and sci-fi that he couldn’t fail to capture the imagination of anyone with half a feel for the beat. It’s no wonder that future legends like Keith Richards and Eric Clapton embraced him so keenly. Young Keith was still playing with rats on Blitzed-out bomb sites in a post-War Britain living in severely austere times, and here was Chuck, singing quite literally about the promised land.

chuck berry gogo

Chuck BerryBye Bye Johnny

I’ve always loved Chuck’s Bye Bye Johnny, a follow-up in sorts to Johnny B. Goode, a story song where the protagonist leaves home in search of fame and fortune. First time I heard it though was on Status Quo’s epic triple box set ‘From the Makers Of‘. For years I assumed it was a denim-clad Quo original. With it’s 3 chord chugga-chugga boogie and heads down, no-nonsense approach it could well have been a mid 70’s Quo classic.

Status QuoBye Bye Johnny

Back in the early 80s, (September ’83), around the time I’d have been headbanging myself into stupidity with a tennis racquet and Status Quo blaring in the background,  Chuck and a pick-up band played my hometown of Irvine. I never went. Why? Because I was a daft wee boy who was in denial about music from the past. If my parents liked it, I didn’t. It was as simple as that.

chuck irvineFound on t’internet

The promoter of the concert, Willie Freckleton, booked all the bands that came through the town, from Chuck and The Clash to Oasis and Bjork. In later years he told me the story of how Chuck wouldn’t play until he’d been given his fee in a brown paper bag stuffed with good ol’ fashioned American dollars. For a man who’d been ripped off from the moment he’d picked up a guitar, this was probably a smart move, albeit a little cold. After the main set, where Chuck had of course wowed the audience with his 3 minute symphonies and wide-legged stage antics, he left to frenzied applause.

That was great, Chuck!” cheered Willie to his idol from the side of the stage. “Are you going back on? Give the audience a wee bit more, eh?

Sho thing, man,” drawled Chuck, hand out-stretched. “Fo’ anotha’ thousan’ dolla’s…

The Irvine audience never got an encore.

chuck berry

Chuck BerrySweet Little Rock ‘n Roller

You can’t write a piece about him without pointing out the fact that Chuck Berry is, by all accounts, an appalling human being.

Not just for the money-in-the-bag story (that’s so routine in Chuck’s world now, it’s almost as much a signature move as the Johnny B. Goode riff) or the dubious lyrics that reference young girls and carnal acts dressed up in all manner of metaphors.

There is the 3 year jail sentence for transporting a 14 year-old across State lines for ‘prostitution’ and immoral purposes’. You can’t dress that up in metaphor, Chuck. Or maybe you did?

More recently, there is the story of him having a hidden camera in the female toilets in his restaurant. Charges were only dropped after he agreed to pay financial compensation to the 200+ victims who came forward.

Flawed genius? Perhaps. Or just not a nice man.

chuck mug

Broadcaster Andy Kershaw does a really terrific stand-up routine, based around his autobiography ‘No Off Switch‘ – it’s a brilliant read, and part of his show is based around his distaste for Berry as a person alongside the unbridled joy of listening to Promised Land.

If you want to travel across America, don’t do Route 66. That’s the accepted route, but believe me, unless you’re into farming and grain containment, you won’t find a more boring road in the whole of America. If you want to find out about the real America; the grit, the dirt, the soul of the country, take Uncle Chuck’s advice and follow the lyrics of Promised Land.”

Kershaw then impressively reels off the lyrics. Breathless poetry about a land that captured the imaginations of all those post-War wannabe guitar players. It’s a beautiful thing….

Chuck BerryPromised Land

I’ve always had a soft spot for the late 70’s Elvis version.

Listen closely and you can hear his lard ass a-wobblin’ out the seams of that ridiculous white jump suit as he breathlessly tries to keep up with the rest of the band. Heck, you can practically see the sweat flying over the top of the gold aviators as The King staves off the heart attack for a few more weeks. Essential listening, of course.

Elvis PresleyPromised Land

 

Cover Versions, Gone but not forgotten

Groovin’ Up Slowly

I’ve lived with The BeatlesAbbey Road for nigh on 30 years. I first heard it as a boggle-eyed (or should that be eared?) teenager via Irvine Library’s record lending service during my ‘sponge years’ when I soaked up everything and anything I thought I might like. Deep Purple? Nah. Cat Stevens? Nah. Pink Floyd? Some of it, not all of it. Status Quo? Aye! Too right! (The early ‘Quo, mind.)

Abbey Road was a whole different level of great though. It wasn’t the first Beatles album I’d heard. Or maybe it was. My dad had a compilation on cassette that played on regular rotation on the kitchen’s cassette player – it might’ve been the ‘Red’ one or the ‘Blue’ one, although I suspect it was probably a made up selection of songs someone had taped for him. Abbey Road, with it’s lack of ‘yeah yeah yeahs’ and guitar solos as long as the Fab Four’s hair seemed almost anti-pop, a grown-up album by grown-up musicians. I loved it.

Reproduction, © Bloomsbury Auctions

The whole album didn’t quite fit onto the one side of a D90, but I taped it as far as it would go before the tape ran out. The other side of the tape probably had ‘No Parlez‘ by Paul Young or something equally horrible on it, so frustratingly, sacrilegiously, my version of the album always ran out just as Ringo’s drum solo in ‘The End‘ was reaching fever pitch.

It was only a few years later when I got the CD that I realised there was a hidden track of sorts at the very end. No doubt I’d have heard Her Majesty on the first listen of the knackered library copy I borrowed, but its misplaced positioning evaded my ears until I began buying CDs a few years later.

My CD copy of Abbey Road is as well-worn as a shiny plastic thing can get. These days you can count your plays on iTunes. Had this been the case years ago, I’d be well into triple figures with Abbey Road. I know it inside out and back to front. Or, at least, I thought I did.

abbey road 1

Over Christmas I got my old turntable working again. I’ve always had a turntable, but in the year 1997 BC (Before Children, when I was relatively flush with cash) I upgraded to a decent separates system and I stupidly neglected to upgrade the turntable. It was all about CDs by then, y’see. When the well-worn Pioneer finally gave up the ghost, I was turntable-less for the next 15 and a half years.

I liberated the Dual deck from the stock room of the Our Price I worked in on the day I left. Long-since retired, it was an unloved relic of a bygone era, an era when Our Price sold only records, and gimmicky fashion statements such as Tamagochis and mobile phones had yet to be thought of. It was built like a tank though, designed to play records non-stop from 9-5.30, 6 days a week, with 4 extra hours every Sunday. A visit to the loft to retrieve it, followed by a couple of visits to YouTube (for instructions) and eBay (for a belt and stylus) and then followed by a bit of ham-fisted tinkering around with a can of electrical contact cleaner had it working like it was 1991 again. And music has never sounded better.

I recently got around to getting Abbey Road on vinyl. Not an original, it’s one of the remastered stereo versions from a few years ago. It sounds amazing! Bass and drums especially. They’re warm, dynamic and in-the-room there. I’m no audiophile, but from what I can tell, this version of the LP is brilliant. I’m all for listening to music on whatever format is available, be that hissy FM radio or hassle-free mp3, but for all its snap, crackle and pop, I love vinyl. There are few frills with Abbey Road. There’s no gatefold sleeve or fold-out lyric sheet. But the music is all you need. That second side, the medley, sounds incredible. It’s let me hear an album I thought I knew really well in a brand new, beautiful light. I must investiagte this new-fangled vinyl thing further…

abbey road 2

Here’s Chuck Berry with You Can’t Catch Me. Lennon borrowed half a line for Come Together and found himself on the wrong end of a law suit a year or so later. But you knew that already.

Chuck BerryYou Can’t Catch Me

The BeatlesCome Together

Reproduction, © Bloomsbury Auctions