Nearly famous

How I was nearly the bass player in a chart-topping band!

At the tender age of 16, I took up the bass in preference to lead guitar.  I was OK at acoustic and rhythm but knew I was never going to be an electric guitar hero. (My excuse at the time was that my fingers were too short!)  I played bass and sang in a band with a group of lads at school – we were OK but never tested ourselves outside of my mate’s parents’ back room, so I don’t think we were ever going to achieve much.

At the time I did a Saturday job at a big department store in Guildford, and it was there that I became friendly with a lad called Ed, who was a couple of years older than me.  It soon became clear we were both aspiring musicians and Ed told me all about the band he was playing in, whose bassist had just quit. 

I enthusiastically agreed to go and audition for them at their regular practice session and, once there, had a ball jamming along on bass to their songs.  I think I may have even added some backing vocals.  They must have liked what I did because I was invited to join the band not long after that first evening.  The other band members were Howard on drums, Jonny on vocal, and Ed, who was a very capable electric guitarist and songwriter. 

All were a couple of years older than me, but we became pretty good mates and began to rehearse regularly together.  The band had an unusual name, “The Ellery Bops”, and played a lively new-wave post-punk style of music (this was 1978) with lots of energy and clashing chords.  I never did find out where that name came from though.

Anyway, Ed was (unlike me, it must be said) a confident young man, not scared to get on the phone and chase bookings.  He managed to get us quite a few gigs around the Guildford area and even a couple up in London.  We played in village halls, various pubs, at Surrey University students’ union, and even a couple of nightclubs. 

I recall once being quizzed about my age when playing at a nightclub in Guildford (which supposedly had a strict over-18s policy) and I answered that I was 18.  The guy clearly didn’t believe me but decided to let it go – those were the days before ID checks. 

It was all a lot of fun, though I recall a distinct lack of friendliness and disdain from the more established music community towards us kids at that time, though this was by no means universal.  There was for instance a lovely, friendly, and supportive guy called Dick Middleton, who had been a member of the 70’s band Mungo Jerry and ran his own music shop in Guildford.  I remember he opened his shop late one night to give me a bass guitar string when one of mine failed during the soundcheck for a gig – things like that live long in the memory and I’d love to buy Dick a drink one day. 

But many of the older musicians and sound engineers in clubs and pubs, who had been there, seen it, done it, and got the T-shirt, could be a bit derisive and condescending.  I can, hand on heart, say that I have never been like that with any younger musicians myself (even if I don’t like their music), and I can’t comprehend why anyone would want to be.

The highlight of my time with the Bops was when we featured in the local paper, The Surrey Advertiser.  There was a big photo of us under the headline: “The Ellery Bops, oh so pretty but certainly not vacant”, and a transcript of an interview we’d done with their ace reporter.   There was also talk around the Guildford music circuit that we had one of the best rhythm sections around – that would have meant Howard and me, though undoubtedly more him than me.  He was a top drummer who worked hard at his craft and I was an OK bassist who did just enough to get by.

I’m afraid that as I was so young and clueless I messed up what might perhaps have been great opportunities for me.  I never really bought into the band properly; I was just along for the ride, unlike Ed and Howard who were gifted with vision and drive as well as their musical talents.  I still insisted on playing old 50s style rock n roll with another nowhere band, as well as playing covers with my old schoolmates, so my commitment and heart weren’t in it.  It was actually then not a complete surprise when Ed phoned me one evening to let me know that the band had agreed to break up.  (It didn’t even occur to me to ask why I hadn’t been in on that decision!)

At one of our last Guildford gigs before the split, the Bops had been on the same bill as another local band called the Vapors, who we all agreed was excellent.  A few months after the demise of the Bops I was surprised to learn that Ed and Howard were now members of the Vapors and they had been signed to a record label.  Indeed, shortly after this the Vapors’ had a chart hit with “Turning Japanese”, which is still popular today.  I don’t suppose really I would ever have been a part of the Vapors line-up as they had their own excellent bassist, but I might have at least kept myself in contention had I been more committed.

I’m afraid that I must confess here: before the age of Google, when it was difficult for anyone to check the veracity of stories they were told, I used to tell people that I had been the bassist in the Vapors, but before they actually became the Vapors…..  this was, of course, a brazen fib, of which I am deeply ashamed.  Once Google came along and people were able to find out with a few clicks that I never actually featured in the Vapors at all, I have had to be rather more truthful with my story.

Anyway, that is the true (honest!) story of how I was nearly a member of a chart-topping band.  Still, no regrets eh….?

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