[2.] THE NERVOUS SYSTEM
By the end of 1966 the suits suddenly began to smell of mothballs, the collars chafed & the music sounded scratchy & thin. DB, our beatnik roadie, had introduced some of us to the kind of hand-rolled cigarettes that hitherto I had only read about in jazz biographies. And via what passed for the hip music press came tales of new sounds from San Francisco. The revolution, it seemed, was at hand.
At the hipster’s West End music mecca, One Stop Record in South Moulton Street, I diverted shirt & suit money towards three imported LPs: the first albums from The Doors & Love on Elektra (those box-quality cardboard sleeves!) & Safe As Milk by Captain Beefheart on Buddha.
Conversion was instant & comprehensive. Like Toad of Toad Hall, my rapture for the new order was total & I wanted jangling 12-strings, screaming feedback, wacky lyrics & psychedelia (whatever that was) in spades. Nearly all of the Bismark’s crew ran for cover in the face of such wild-eyed zeal leaving Pete & I to press on undaunted. We formed a new band & went in search of the New Jersusalem.
MARTIN FRY, DAVE FRENCH, MARTIN FIELDHOUSE, DICK JONES, PETE CURRIE
After spending a fortnight arguing about an appropriately outrageous name (The Flesh Knot, The Sperm Bank & Pete’s favourite, Disastrous Partridge & The Seven Year Whistle), we ended up with The Nervous System & began to sort out who was going to play what. Pete knew several more chords than I did & could barre all of them without getting finger cramp so I moved from guitar to bass. After a few rehearsals with others of equal incompetence, an initial line-up stabilised & we shambled out onto the mile-high stage of the Knight’s Youth Club, Brockley for our debut gig.
Jingling like lost sheep & peering myopically through our regulation Jim McGuinn dark glasses at an incredulous audience, we proceeded to demonstrate our complete lack of understanding both of stage dynamics & basic electronics. With amp fuses blowing & the interminable tuning of guitars, we managed to lurch through three numbers – one original & two Byrds b-sides – before an apologetic vicar asked us ever so nicely to desist.
Hubris without foundation is a great asset & we persevered in the face of derision & indifference. And our time came. Suddenly the South-East London hotspots went beads & kaftans & the search was on for native folk rock & psychedelia. Instant experts, prophets honoured in their own time, we were in demand & a brief but intensive period of hard gigging grew us up fast.
Through a combination of simply being in exactly the right place at precisely the right time & Pete’s shameless hustling, we soon found ourselves doing the rounds of the nascent underground clubs, always trailing in the wake of the heavyweights, present & clearly future. From our humble corner we watched Syd Barrett being lifted bodily onto stage at Alexandra Palace, his guitar hanging around his neck like the albatross. We were approached at Middle Earth in Covent Garden by Fairport Convention, fascinated that we were using a traditional folk song in an electric format. At the same club, we gathered up a shy & unrecognised John Peel at 3 am & bought him a steak pie in the busy market, surrounded by bemused porters at early breakfast. At Chiselhurst Caves Eric Burdon roared so mightily into the two mics we lent him in quick succession that we had to bin them & buy new ones.
The summer of 1967 seemed to go on forever. We began it as The Nervous System, a college band that got lucky, & we closed the year as Tintagel, thoroughly gigged, half-competent & twice as arrogant (although, of course, in a loving & peaceful sort of way.)