My blog has been posted much earlier this month for a personal reason; as events over the past week or so have caused me to reflect on how fragile this life we are living can be.
Those of you who have read the book will recall that several years after I stopped singing with the group, I managed a young band for a while. I didn’t go into it in any detail, as it was just one example of how music played a significant part in my life, before, during and after my singing career. Perhaps now is the right time to relate what happened and the link with my time of reflection of late.
In the summer of 1984 the country was in recession. Very much as today, young people were leaving school and jobs were thin on the ground. The government came up with a scheme which assisted companies in taking on a batch of young hopefuls, where they were given a general level of training in a series of departments for up to a year. Thereby keeping them from the dole queue, or from the Government’s point of view, off the unemployment figures!
I had perhaps a dozen 17-18 year olds that spent time in the Accounts department of the tyre production firm where I worked, also visiting Planning, Technical, Production, Sales & IT etcetera. In addition to their general training, Personnel made sure they had sessions on how to get their CV up to scratch, how to improve their interview techniques, how to make presentations and so on. You get the picture?
Some found jobs locally eventually and left; some were taken on within the company, as they impressed a particular manager during their stint in their area. Very few fell by the wayside or got to the end of the scheme and had to be let go, as far as I recall. Even those that did were better equipped for the real world than when they had joined us straight from school.
One of the young lads Phil was a guitarist and had ambitions to form a band, write his own material and hit the ‘big time’. Ah memories! It wasn’t long before he had to suffer a couple of the ‘war stories’ that appeared in the book as you can imagine! He was into computers and endured the time he had to spend with us ‘bean counters’ with good grace, but his heart belonged elsewhere. We lost contact for a while as, once he had moved on to his next department, I had another fresh faced lad or lass who needed me to pass on the wisdom of my years! In time, he found a job in computers in Trowbridge.
About a year later I was sat at home watching TV with my wife and kids, when the door bell rang. Reluctantly, I levered myself out of my comfortable chair and went to open the door, expecting to be faced with a cold caller, two Mormons, two Jehovah’s Witnesses or a snotty nosed urchin who wanted his ball from my back garden. Either of the above would have got short shrift I can assure you!
In fact, I came face to face with Phil, who had two other young lads with him, strategically placed across my driveway; presumably to cut off my escape if I decided to make a break for it, although all I had to do was quickly shut the door and they would have been stuffed! Phil introduced Paul (bass) and Nigel (drums) and said Situation Forward was rehearsing in a village hall a few miles out of town (No! A different one to any we had used and abused!) and would I come along to have a listen and tell them whether they were on the road to fame and fortune, or the road to nowhere.
After some delicate negotiations with the wife, I was allowed out, without a chaperone, with three 18 year old single lads. Little did I know, neither did my good lady wife that we were en route to pick up a recently added girl singer, Sian, before we headed out into ‘bandit country’ and Broughton Gifford village hall! The original threesome had worked hard on the dozen or so self penned songs that they could play & later on when I heard them go through their repertoire it was evident they had musical talent, some pretty decent songs and Sian had a very, very good voice.
It was Style Council meets Sade if you need to put them in a box, but there was enough originality to them to have a shot at making it, given the breaks. And so it began. An evening at rehearsals became a regular thing, followed by the occasional booking and somewhere along the way I appeared, almost by default, to have become their manager. I found myself chasing dates in local pubs and clubs, arranging interviews with the local press and booking time at a local recording studio to get that all important demo down.
Situation Forward didn’t have the luxury of a van, so it was several small cars to get the kit around West Wiltshire! The lads took it in turns to ferry Sian back to Chippenham as she had no transport. After I’d been listening intently in the main hall to the first few songs I heard some commotion behind me. Several young ladies had arrived! All very welcome at the appropriate time! They seemed quite at home in the kitchen (oops!) chatting away and offered to pop to the nearest pub for cans of coke & crisps When the lads took a fifteen minute break, we all pitched up in the kitchen and Phil introduced me to the new arrivals. His girlfriend was Marcia, who worked in the same bank I had many years before. A very attractive girl with dark brown eyes and a warm bubbly personality. It would have only been natural that there was some reticence towards me, a guy twice her age, coming in and checking out her hero who had managed quite well, thank you, without my help! Yet from that first meeting I sensed she was a friend for life. It doesn’t matter how long it is between the times you see one another, it’s as comfortable a relationship as when you last met. Over the years since that first meeting I realised Marcia had that type of bond with hundreds of people.
The band never had the relentless grind on the road we had back in the day, but the months passed with practices, gigs and as usual, differences of opinion! I saw Marcia & Phil at other times in between as well. I lost count of the number of times when walking back to work, passing the King’s Arms pub in the middle of town Marcia would emerge, for a quick chat during her lunch break from the bank, she’d straighten my tie and give me a friendly squeeze then send me on my way so I was only a couple of minutes late back! She and Phil came to our house between Christmas and New Year for drinks, a bite to eat and a chat, so the wife got to know some of these people I was spending my precious spare time with! The kids were in bed but the twins asked if ‘Phil from the Forest was coming round tonight?’ before they climbed the stairs. They knew if he was, Marcia who was great with them, would be there too.
We booked a Sunday session at Pete Lamb’s recording studio near Devizes. It actually occupied what used to be the lounge in his extended bungalow, so it was perfectly normal for him as the recording engineer to be in his carpet slippers! Made you feel right at home! The lads had to get the gear over there early doors, so Marcia came round and picked me up and we made our way over a bit later on. The day went well. The five chosen tracks for the cassette (memories again!) were recorded in good time and Pete was impressed. Particularly with Sian’s vocals. He said ’Listen to this Ted’ and played back part of one track. ‘Remember she said she wanted to do that vocal again? I wondered about double tracking the chorus on that track to see what it sounded like. Don’t need to play around, not only has she got perfect pitch; her phrasing on both takes is absolutely identical. That’s a rare talent! So I’ve just run those lines in the chorus on top of one another and it sounds terrific to me. What do you reckon?’ I was gobsmacked! It sounded great and from experience I knew that I would have had trouble getting the words right twice, let alone the same notes, lengths, inflections, and breaths as well.
We had our cassettes delivered later that week and I battered the local radio stations and agencies for exposure and more gigs. There was a sense we were on the verge of something good about to happen when the wheels fell off! We played a gig in a pub near Trowbridge and Sian decided she wouldn’t go back on for the last session. It was still okay to smoke in pubs back then so Sian as a non-smoker attributed a slightly sore throat she was experiencing to the smoky atmosphere.
I tried to tell her she needed to pay her dues: take the rough with the smooth; told her I’d coughed up lumps over my years on stage but I’d never wanted to know what was in them! All sorts! Nothing would change her mind. She had a few college friends with her, possibly the first and only time she’d brought anyone to a gig and they all sided with her and thought what a brute I was for shouting at her & bullying her into singing for another 45 minutes. So Sian left the group. Whether she sang again I’ve no idea. A great shame if she didn’t, because she had a special talent,
The lads continued to practice as a three piece for a while then an older girl Alison who had done some studio session work in London some years before, arrived on the scene. She had moved to Trowbridge to live and came along to try out. She had a good voice but it would take a while to adapt the playlist to suit her style. I was still turning up and keeping an eye on things though the search for gigs had had to be put on hold. We had switched practice venue to the King’s Arms and the time, to Sunday afternoons. As my wife worked part time at weekends this meant I took the kids (who were more than willing) and while we worked at getting Alison up to speed, Marcia kept them quiet and occupied.
It was now late summer in 1986 and the company embarked on a major cost cutting exercise (nothing changes does it?) with a firm of consultants being employed who then added a dozen people from in-house to their task force. I was one of the chosen few. We were despatched for training (brainwashing) and on our return were told we would be working for 90 – 100 hours a week for the next twelve months and to cancel our social lives! We were also told that we would be the twelve most unpopular people in West Wiltshire. Sadly, both things we were told that day were 100% correct.
I had to tell the group I was no longer going to be available. Sunday came around and the kids and I arrived. I broke the news in the mid session break and decided to get the kids home rather than drag it out. Phil and the others were disappointed and hoped things might not be as bad as I feared, made me promise to keep in touch and perhaps pick things up in due course. Of course I agreed and we made our way out into the September sunshine on our way to my parent’s house to pick up the kid’s bikes. Marcia appeared by my side and started walking with us as she said she didn’t want to say goodbye. We strolled up to my parent’s place; the kids got their bikes out of the shed and sped off up the pavement towards home. Marcia and I wandered after them and I tried to reassure her that it was au revoir not goodbye. Our route to my house nearly took us full circle so after about a ten minute walk we were at the top of the slope leading down into town and the King’s Arms was just a couple of hundred yards away. Marcia went right. I turned left and followed the kids who were waiting by a seat, well trained, for Dad to see them safely across the road. I looked back towards town and Marcia had stopped and she waved until I disappeared from view.
The next twelve months at work was hard graft, as promised, but rewarding. I looked to pick up the pieces after the task force disbanded, but there was still work to be done making sure we built on the progress we had made and I didn’t have a lot of free time. All I was certain of was that the group were no longer rehearsing on Sunday afternoons as I walked by the pub with the kids on the way to see their grandparents most Sundays. Silence reigned.
Phil was working out of town as I said and I discovered Marcia had left the bank and was with the County Council looking after education budgets in schools in the area. We lost touch completely during the 90s. She and Phil were married in 1990 and as the decade wore on Phil started getting the ‘itch’ again to play his guitar. Phil found a bass player, a drummer and lead singer (male this time) and Muttley were formed. The first time I heard them in a pub in town I was unimpressed; they basically seemed to have learned the entire Oasis catalogue, no original numbers at all. Marcia was there at that gig (the fifth member of the group as always!) and as I expected, we just picked up from where we left off.
Over the next ten years Muttley became more rounded and developed a pretty good playlist. Kim, one of my twins asked them to play at her wedding reception in 2005, we saw each other on and off throughout the decade and when I hit 65 in 2010 I invited Phil and Marcia to my ‘birthday bash’. Phil and one of his mates from the band turned up but Marcia was off with Ben and James her two beloved boys, looking after the stopwatch at a swimming gala they were in. Although I was disappointed she wasn’t there on the night, we were all pleased that she was well enough to take the kids out and do something not too tiring.
The year before, Marcia had been diagnosed with breast cancer and had battled through the treatment and appeared to have come out the other side. I bumped into her in the King’s Arms on the first Friday evening she had been out for a long time, with a group of her closest female friends. Her hair was cropped but those eyes were still sparkling. We had a chat and a hug as usual and when my book came out in August her and Phil’s names were among the first on the list of invites to the book launch. Her reply arrived in my inbox and she was pleased to accept and most appreciative of the fact that I had invited her boys as well.
I don’t know when the hammer blow fell. Sadly they didn’t make the book launch. Having appeared to have beaten her breast cancer, she was told it had spread to her bones and she eventually lost her brave fight on Sunday 19th February. She was just 45 years old.
My wife was on her holiday of a lifetime in Australia when I heard the news and shed my tears. I had to break it to her when she came home. I attended Marcia’s funeral with my wife and my other daughter Louise on Monday 27th February at the local crematorium. We stood in the foyer shoulder to shoulder with many others, mostly strangers. The main room was full to overflowing. Behind us, stood outside in the drizzly overcast morning were perhaps sixty or more people who listened to the eulogies through the speakers mounted outside. I can’t imagine many people getting a send-off like that. She touched so many people.
When you reach my time of life you have experienced losing a family member or friend, pretty regularly on occasion. Certainly you find you attend funerals far more often than weddings or christenings. In virtually every case the funeral is of someone much older than you, or a contemporary such as Nick our saxophone player who passed away in August last year. It’s harder to come to terms with losing someone so young who had so much to live for, so much to give.
For my part I will remember her smile, her warmth and her laughter. For me it will be au revoir and never goodbye.