The first 5,000 words of the completed manuscript A Thousand Dances: A Novel of the British Blues Boom
1) 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.”
It 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 criticising—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 club.
“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 not to.
“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 headteacher. 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 played in the intervals between contract groups’ sets. 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 Melody Maker 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.
2) Mr. Cochran Gets Me Nowhere
As the Detours twanged a hasty sound check, I jumped down into the roiling crowd. It would’ve been easy to disappear among them, but I shouldered through to the front and plunked my shilling into Mr. Pym’s box. Mr. Pym, a doorman of a size to substitute for the door if needed, nodded to me. Mr. Pym never said more than three words at a time. I thought he rather liked me, but it was hard to be sure.
A flock of birds were bopping together in the middle of the room. As I passed, Denys, Andy, and their crew started singling out their usual partners. “Help me out, will you, sweetie?” burbled a dolly called Barbara, swaying up against him.
Blatantly, as if Mr. Pym weren’t even there, Denys pulled out a waxed packet and tipped three little purply-blue triangles into her hand. Batting her lashes, she held her palm to his mouth. He licked up a tablet and washed it down with a swig of Coca-Cola.
My gorge rose, and I elbowed past them to our usual corner below stage left. Denys was right behind me, holding out his stash to the musos. I got out of his way. “Cheers,” said Peter, taking two Purple Hearts, hesitating, then accepting two more. The others also reached for them. Denys didn’t offer us any, which suited me fine. Leapers were the currency of sussed clubgoers and a staple in holes like this with no liquor licence. They gave regular users excitable stammers like Andy’s. The one time I tried them, I got lightheaded to the point of fainting, and Luce made me go home early.
“You’re so helpful tonight, Spindly—fetch us some Cokes, will you?” Denys tossed off to me.
“I’m not your bloody butler,” I replied with some heat.
“God, no—I’d never let my butler be seen in that bow tie,” he sneered back.
I opened my mouth for a witty riposte, but for once nothing emerged. “Listen—Sam Cooke,” said Luce in my ear, pulling me to dance with her.
It was ‘Send Me Some Lovin’,’ in a nice couples-dance tempo. “Speaking of Buddy Holly,” I remarked, stepping into the rhythm. “I wouldn’t expect the same song from him and Cooke. There’s not a thing wrong with my bow tie. Is there?”
“Let it go, Nicky,” said Luce, her hands on my shoulders. Luce, though a tall, handsome woman in a slightly horsey way, took her art seriously and wore dark roll-necks and knee-length skirts. She kept her yellow hair in an easy ponytail. One of my favorite things about Luce was that she didn’t chase about after Mary Quant’s fashions. She certainly could dance, though.
I kept grumbling. “Just because he’s popular and wonderfully run after—“
“He’s a clot. We’ve established this.”
“Like there’s some code the rest of us are failing to interpret.”
“Let it go, will you? He’s not worth it.” Cooke headed into the middle eight, and Luce turned in my arms, making me dip her. With any other partner, it would have been sensual. With Luce, it was only good clean fun. The female regulars around us looked cool and inaccessible in the latest short skirts. They begged one to stare at their legs, and stare one did. None of them would dance with me, though.
The next song was ‘Who Do You Love,’ heart-poundingly exciting, but not the Bo Diddley original. “Who’s this?” Luce said.
“Ronnie Hawkins,” I answered at once. “Listen to those licks. That guitarist’s going places.”
The floor was packed with swinging dancers. We held our arms at our sides so as not to clock anyone.
Between good songs Roy sprang for chicken-flavoured crisps from the bar in the corner. We untwisted the little salt packets, licked our fingers, and washed the mess down with pop. Barnsy of the Detours jumped down from the stage and came our way, lighting a Woodbine. “Aren’t you about to play?” I asked.
“I’m only here as a tourist. Pete’s my flatmate. I try to come out for them when I haven’t a better date. Purple Heart?” He held out a palmful of blue tablets.
“Cheers, but no. I’d take a ciggie if you’ve one to spare.” In gentlemanly fashion he pulled out a fresh one and lit it for me. I inhaled, coughed a little, and sighed in contentment. I tried not to get too addicted. The Brig wouldn’t hear of me smoking in the house.
Luce clicked her tongue. “Belt up,” I told her. To Barnsy I added, “This is Luce. She’s my—er—female person that I go about with.”
“Barnsy,” he introduced himself. “I run the Tuesday Bluesday club at the Railway Hotel pub, nights they don’t have jazz on. You should come round sometime.”
Before he could finish chatting her up, the Detours catapulted into something so loud it raised the hair on the back of my neck. It turned out to be Arthur Alexander’s ‘A Shot of Rhythm and Blues.’ Blond Roger half-shouted into his mic, and Peter shrieked out the refrain.
Cripes, they were loud, fake amp boxes or no. If you stood still you’d be pinned to the wall. There was nothing for it but to match their sound with our bodies. Hard-heeled shoes drummed the cement floor.
I first heard American rock and roll when I was ten years old. Like everyone else, I was hooked by Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around the Clock.’ I begged for a record player until I wore the Brig down. He then spent the next few years shouting things up the stairs like “Fruit of me loins, if you value your old man’s sanity, please, no more ‘Runaround Sue’!” He understood, though. He’d met Mum Lindy Hopping to Count Basie. Before the war, when he could toss his partner in the air, catch her, and still be on the beat.
The Detours moved on to ‘Shakin’ All Over.’ Roger’s big, throbbing voice wobbled but kept at it, and Peter smashed out chunky chords that often resembled the proper ones. The tall, boyish bassist, John, stood like a statue but plucked long runs as though he were the lead instrument.
“They’re good!” I shouted to Barnsy, dancing next to me.
“They’re good. The bassist.”
“Oh, yeah! He’s great!”
The best thing about dancing in a Modernist crowd is that no partner is required. The trendsetting Faces and trend-following numbers, when they deigned to select a partner, wouldn’t muss their immaculate hemlines by touching, so a singleton in their midst was hardly noticeable. Besides, once Denys Brown was through with me, nobody paid attention to my style-deprived little group. Even at that age I was a good dancer, whether anyone was watching me or not.
Three songs into the set, Luce drifted to the lip of the stage and pulled out her camera again. Eddie was at the bar, and Roy and Suzy jived together. This left me facing a fit chick called Meg or Maggie, whose tight frock seemed unlikely to last the night. A fellow could dream, at least. The musos pounded out Eddie Cochran’s ‘Summertime Blues.’
“Just like Ray Charles!” I shouted into her ear.
“Eddie Cochran’s ‘Hallelujah, I Love Her So’! Ray Charles made an R&B version!”
“This is an Eddie Cochran song! You know, where his guitar goes—“ I acted out the famous driving riff. I suppose it brought me too close for comfort. She turned her back on me with an “Ugh!” and a fling of her hair.
When I was twelve, I heard ‘Hound Dog’—not the pale imitation by Elvis Presley, but the original by Big Mama Thornton. After two minutes and fifty seconds of that deep, abrasive, real voice, I saw how inadequate everything was that I’d worshiped up to then. Suddenly I became a man and put away childish things.
When American Armed Forces Radio played it again, I rushed to initiate the Brig. He watched me throughout with a queer expression on his face. As the last chord faded, he said, “It’s high time you and I had a talk about the birds and the bees.”
“What’s that to do with anything?” I said impatiently. “Were you even listening to the song?”
His mischievous grin quirked the corners of his mouth. “Oh, I was listening, me pet. Were you?”
Now, of course, I could hear the pure sex in the sound just as he did. To be fair, the Brig’s own repertoire of tunes wasn’t short on naughty lyrics. Good thing, since it seemed like all the sex I was ever going to get.
Who needed bonking when you had live music, I told myself, and I nearly believed it. For a few minutes while we danced, I felt my body and soul to be of a piece, and just where it should be. The stuffy, smoky, low-ceilinged ballroom with its war-relic decor and unforgiving floor fell away. Until the song ended, the guitar, bass, and drums channeled the music of the spheres.
The Detours twisted and shouted and so did we, familiar song after familiar song. Peter the guitarist took an extended and ill-advised solo, ending on a long screech. It was some sort of climax. Dripping sweat, Roger thanked the crowd and told us to stay for the next set.
“Mixed, I’d say,” I remarked to Luce when our ears could function at conversational volume. “More pop than blues. But a good sound.”
“Mm,” she responded, fiddling with her camera. She patiently listened to my review every week.
Peter stepped off the stage, catching his breath. I applauded him. “You’re daft, but thanks,” he said. He turned to Luce. “Right, dicky bird, why the camera? You haven’t got a recording microphone on there, have you?”
Eagerly she explained. “My project shows the expressiveness of musicians without the aid of hearing them. The viewer can follow the emotions in their body language and link them to ambient sound present during the viewing. It’s—“
“—not unlike the ideas of John Cage,” I recited with her. She shoved me. “Oh, come on!” I said. “Pretentious rubbish.”
“Makes perfect sense to me,” Peter said forbiddingly. “No such thing as silence.”
“Not round here, at any rate,” I sniped.
“I hear echoes of Dr. Ascott,” said Barnsy, coming alongside. “You must be at Ealing Art College.”
“In my second year,” she said proudly.
“Our alma mater,” Peter said. “The music is only a job. I’m into art, actually.”
Off they went into a discussion of representational versus avant-garde, and off I went to the bar, where Eddie was lounging on a stool. “Excuse us for not dunning the state for art school,” he said when I filled him in. “Have a puff?” He generously shared his smoke. On the stage, the Selwyns were feeling their way into Richie Barrett’s inevitable ‘Some Other Guy,’ as if Denys Brown needed to prove afresh that he had no soul. Denys’ adult voice was still good, but he’d no idea what to do with it. The others were simply bad.
Lady Cherrystone, the building’s owner, was holding court on a nearby stool. She was a sort of prewar vamp, with lacquered nails and hair and a long, affected cigarette holder. We called her Lady because nobody could be bothered to recall her real name. “I just try to book groups you’ll all love, my little fanatics,” she carried on to nobody in particular, waving an airy hand towards the stage. “So do tell me what you’d like to hear. I’m here just for you.”
“Will you book Desmond Dekker from Jamaica?” I piped up. Eddie snorted with laughter. Lady C grandly ignored me.
Another good-looking chick, Carol Ann, made her pin money serving us lot our Coca-Colas. Every week the lads tried to catch her eye, and every week she evaded us all. Tonight the loser was the PA man, Martin Dixon, who tapped on the bar and dodged around us trying to talk to her. Finally he turned to Lady C and shouted over the music, “See here, I’m just trying to tell her that the loo door is stuck again. It’s getting a bit dire!”
This provoked a big laugh. Lady C responded as though he’d spat on her. “Carol Ann!” she exclaimed shrilly. “Do something!”
“Yes, ma’am—sorry—” The bar girl seized a keyring from behind the bar and ducked away.
The Selwyns plowed through their overlong set. Then the Detours were banging back onto the stage. We hotfooted it to the dance floor. “You know what time it is?” I shouted to Luce over the opening of ‘Big Boss Man.’
“Quarter to ten!” she shouted back. “Curfew time for you!”
“Good riddance!” I dusted my hands of a sixteen-year-old’s limitations. Of course most of the kids had been staying out late for years. The Brig had bestowed my freedom as a birthday gift only a fortnight before, and not a moment too soon. I’d spent my birthday weekend with the Rolling Stones and a star lineup at the National Jazz Festival. It was officially the first time I’d been allowed to stay out into the night, seeing the Stones’ Brian Jones doing amazing things with bottleneck guitar. I’d had a long chatter with Keith, their rhythm guitarist, and Stu, their keyboards man, while watching the other acts.
The Jimmy Reed song had a great backbeat, and the Detours’ rhythm section got it right in the pocket. We danced. Artistic Peter finished with a respectable guitar flourish. The re-energised crowd whooped and screamed. Roger pulled out a mouth organ and leaned in to announce the next number. “You may know this as the B-side of—” He paused. The audience’s calls had let up, but one penetrating female screamer was still at it. It took me a long moment to realise it wasn’t the sound of enthusiasm.
“Fuckin’ ‘ell!” Roger, man of action, swore into the mic. He moved as if to leap off the stage.
“Don’t stop! We’ve got it!” I called. It was our club, after all. The screaming seemed to be echoing up the stairs from the cellar, with hardly a pause for breath. I maneuvered through the crowd, twitching Luce’s sleeve. Andy Drivers and half a dozen other kids piled down after us.
The cellar was a dank series of passageways once used as an air-raid shelter, with one tiny loo. This was inadequate for the patrons even when it wasn’t jammed shut. The screaming girl was flat against the wall opposite the open door. It was Carol Ann the bar server. “Oh God! Oh God!” she was wailing. “It’s—he’s—”
A dark pool was spreading into the corridor. My stomach lurched. A backed-up bog would be bad enough. This was blood.
I couldn’t stand to look and I couldn’t stand not to. A young man was sprawled on the floor of the narrow toilet, long legs and arms askew. Red gore had splattered a yellow-and-green-striped jacket. One white hand was clutching a folding razor-knife, the sort gangs used in fights. The blade sank into a jagged dark gash in his throat. The flickering light reflected off his eyes. They were open and staring.