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Croydon Roots
 A random collection of essays around Wizz's home town...  

From '40s Croydon to London '80s   
A Biography by Ralph McTell
The Croydon Connection   
Transcribed from an interview with Wizz for Chris Groom's book on Croydon
Axe Murmurs   
Ancient tales of a beatnik and his faithful guitar, from Folk Roots

The Croydon Connection - Transcribed from an interview with Wizz for a book about Croydon by Chris Groom

I was actually born in Thornton Heath but I suppose everyone thinks of it as Croydon and I lived in Croydon right up until I left home at the age of 16. As far as the music scene went, the thing about Croydon was that it had Variety places, you know Music Halls where you could see live music long before the rock'n roll thing happened. My first experience of live music was going to the Empire Theatre as a kid and seeing artists such as "Sid Millward and his Nitwits"! ( a zany orchestra in the style of Spike Jones and his City Slickers)

Musically it all seemed to happen at once during the late 50's; traditional New Orleans style jazz, skiffle and then rock'n roll were all emerging at much the same time. In Croydon there were a couple of jazz clubs and quite early on but I first got hooked into skiffle - it was the in-thing at that particular moment with Lonnie Donegan often on the radio. This led to lots of us buying a cheap guitar and learning to strum a few chords (with the help of The Bert Weedon Guitar Book!)

Once a few of your mates had done that, it was straight into forming a group and there were several of them in Croydon, two or three of them working around the local pubs. The band that I put together was one of those, in direct competition with the others and we were called "The Wranglers". This was before the jeans arrived! - we named ourselves after the cowboy/rodeo wranglers, although we used to laugh because in English, to wrangle is to argue over something and a lot of the time this was quite appropriate!

We started to play around Croydon in 1957, I must have been about 17 years old at the time and we had a regular Friday night gig at the Leslie arms in Addiscombe, on the corner of Cherry Orchard Road. We also had the Davis Theatre which was an enormous place where they also put on live music concerts. I remember that the embargo had just been raised on bringing acts over from America - there had been some problem with bringing artists in from The States and they had just worked out a system whereby they could come over on an exchange basis. I got to see people like Stan Kenton, Buddy Holly, Bill Haley and many of the rock'n roll stars and at the same time there was all this jazz thing going on - you really didn't know which way to turn - one minute you were a jazz freak and the next you were a rock'n roller!

My little group The Wranglers played at the Orchid Ballroom in Purley quite a few times, they put us on with a young rock group called The Solitaires. The lead guitarist in our band, who was younger than me, in fact he was a friend of my younger brother Melvyn, was a guy named Mike Borer although he later became known as Mickey King. He had taken up the guitar at the same time as I had but he was very talented and quickly learned to play a lot of lead stuff; he would listen to all the Gene Vincent records and learn all the licks with no problem. We used to play together a lot, either in the band or busking down on the beach in Brighton, but unfortunately for us because he was so good he was poached by other groups.

First he went off to play with another local rocker called Dickie Pride and eventually wound up in the band Cliff Bennet and the Rebel Rousers where he enjoyed some success although I think left them before their first hit. Another Croydon connection that had an indirect influence on my musical career was the Bentley and Craig case. This was a major incident that has been well documented but it resulted in the local police having to be seen to do something about all the juvenile crime and one of the things they did was to open a boys' club, and a really good one at that, in Morland Road, Addiscombe.

All the coppers would arrive on their big red Triumph motorbikes and the youngsters actually built up a rapport with the police, it really worked very, very well. Everything was there, every kind of sport you could think of, the whole place had a great layout, but on top of that it had a sort of arts and drama section run by an old lady (she was probably middle-aged!) I think with the name of Gladys Cooper -but I'm not sure. She had worked in the theatre and as a hobby, she was running the dramatic section of the club and two or three times a year they would stage a concert party, with sketches, dancers, singers and music. This was another inspiration for me because watching those shows - a lot of those guys went on to become professionals and probably the most famous one, who must have been 15 or 16 at the time, was Roy Hudd, a real comedian character who really knocked me out. I was just starting to play with The Wranglers and as we were looking around for places to perform, Roy actually asked us to play at one of the boys' club concerts. Somewhere I still have a photograph of us on stage at The Sir Philip Game Boys' Club , which must have been one of our first gigs.(see Time Tunnel) Roy of course, is now a real local hero with great success not just as a comedian and a comic writer but also he is a very fine actor.

There was another guy who came out of that club crowd called Ernie O'Malley who became a very good drummer and went on to play with Long John Baldry and toured the world with him. The Wranglers went in for a talent contest organised by Radio Luxembourg. We used to play at the Brixton roller skating rink because they used to have a band to play on a balcony overlooking the rink while the kids were skating below. In the early days the band always consisted of old guys wearing wigs and playing violins but when rock'roll happened they started to book younger bands. It was a terrible gig though, you couln't hear a damn thing above the noise of the roller skates! However it was another place to play and we played alternate weeks for a while with another band called The Spacemen which turned out to be Joe Brown's first group.

Anyway we entered this Luxembourg competition where the main prize was a recording contract but even if you didn't win, each member of every group would be given a 78rpm recording of their entry - everyone went up to this studio in London to record two songs and the demos were sent to Radio Luxembourg to be judged. So we went up to this studio and recorded "Mind Your Own Business" by Hank Williams and for the other track we did "Footprints In The Snow" which had been a hit at the time for Johnny Duncan. Now the reason that we did that song was because Mike was such a flashy guitarist that he could actually play the fancy run that's in the Johnny Duncan version (played by Denny Wright) and we all thought we just can't fail to win! We listened to the other groups who were in the competition every week and most of the skiffle groups we thought, were crap - no one could play that well, certainly not as well as Mike.

We really thought we had to win it. So each week they held a heat featuring 3 or 4 bands and the winner of that heat went on to the next week's round. Of course the week we were on was the same week as The Spacemen who's guitar player we found out some years later was Joe Brown who's a great guitar player..and we lost ! But we all got our own copy of one song on 78 ("Mind Your Own Business")

Another unusual gig we played was at the Granada cinema in Thornton Heath. It was when they were showing one of Elvis Presley's early films and the manager of the cinema booked us to play on stage every night of the week, just before the main feature. I don't know how we ever got that gig, we didn't have an agent - any way we would be playing away on stage and suddenly without warning, the curtain would go up and the film would start, with us hastily clearing our gear off stage as fast as possible! That really was a great thrill though, playing perhaps twice a night on that big old stage at the Granada

After Mike left and The Wranglers split up I was more often to be found hanging around Soho than Croydon and going off on that beatnik/hippy tangent and discovering folk music. I had already discovered Ewan MacColl on the radio and at his club in London. I was working at a warehouse in the City and I would catch the train every morning from East Croydon and for about a year I commuted up to town. One morning I got on the train and Ewan MacColl was in the same carriage. I only knew him by sight but I started talking to him and it turned out that he lived in Park Hill Rise, he was living there with his first wife, so I got know him quite well, travelling out from Croydon on the train and because he was living locally. That in itself was a great introduction to the folk scene, being able to talk to Ewan on the way to work! We were chatting one day and I happened to mention that I was really getting into the blues guitar and Ewan said "Oh there is a blues guitarist staying at my house at the moment, you should come back tonight and meet him - his name is Big Bill Broonzy" - I couldn't believe it I mean blimey - staying in Park Hill Rise and I never went! What a fool - still that's the story of my life!

"Under The Olive Tree" was a well known club in South Croydon, although that was much later after I had left Croydon, been abroad, travelled around and had a wife and baby by then. I can't quite remember how it happened, but we got to know the couple who ran the place and I wound up as the resident guitarist there every Sunday afternoon. Thats where Ralph (McTell) and Phil used to come along to before he joined a bluegrass group called The Hickory Nuts. He used to do "floor spots" there in fact all kinds of people used to come along. I found out later that you had the likes of Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton sitting in the front row - I didn't know at the time. There was also a guy who used to be there called Dave Brock and I always thought well, he's not much of a guitar player yet but I saw him busking one day a couple of years later in Portobello Road and I said "How's it going?" and he said "Not very well but I've just formed a band, I don't know if we're going to get anywhere -we're called Hawkwind."

Ralph's brother Bruce used to work at The Olive Tree in the coffee bar - it was a strange gig because it was held in the afternoon which is probably why we would see people from various bands there, before they went off to their own gigs in the evening. I seem to remember that around that time there were folk clubs springing up all over Croydon. Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seegar had something going at the Gun Tavern and there was a club at the Swan and Sugarloaf.

The time I spent in Soho was great, its pure nostalgia now but it really was a wonderful time. You had such a wide mix of people coming in to Soho from the outside; there were working class people like me, trying to escape my boring roots, trying to break free and mixing with rich kids, public school boys, university and art students - all mixing in together, it was great. Like all good "scenes" - sure it produced plenty of casualties but so much grew out of that period and much has been written about the Soho scene (check out Daniel Farson's book on Soho). At the time everyone thought that we were all pioneers, the first people to do it - but obviously it had been going on for years, long before the 60's.

When we all went to busk in France and thought how it was breaking new ground, but you've only got to read "As I Walked Out One Midsummer's Morning" by Laurie Lee to find out that he was doing it in the bloody 30's, you know. In some ways it was better in those days for the "itinerant drop-out" because the mass-media was nowhere near as big, it wasn't on television or in the magazines every day, you really were "underground" so to speak. I mean the 50's were so gloomy; everyone looked and dressed the same, you know, raincoats and baggy grey flannel trousers and trilby hats but now when you walk down the street everyone looks different. I remember when the shop Cecil Gee's first opened in West Croydon and I first saw two Teddy Boys walking down the road in their cut-away collars, drainpipe trousers and chukka boots and I thought "what on earth is that?" It was so totally new and exciting. Incidentally, Eden Kane (part of the Sarstedt dynasty of singing brothers) worked in that shop before he became famous ; we only realised it when we first saw him on television "there's that bloke who used to work in Cecil Gee's!"

The other great shop in Croydon was Kennards (now Debenhams), with it's Tannoy anouncements and that wonderful arcade. It was the first time I ever saw a juke-box, up on the balcony over the arcade; it was a big old brown thing that took pennies and threepenny bits and played 78's. I used to spend hours up there. In fact I can remember buying my first ever blues record in Kennards. It was a 78 by John Lee Hooker called "Hoogie Boogie" and years later I heard Davy Graham playing a thing called "Davy's Train Blues" and I said to him "that really sounds like Hoogie Boogie" and he said "Yeah, I bought that record in 1950 something" and I said "So did I." It turned out that we had both bought this same blues 78 at roughly the same time. I was a real pop music fan as a kid, I had these scrapbooks that I'd made with the lyrics to all the hit songs and little drawings of all the artists, it's a great shame that I didn't keep them.

I was a mad music collector too; I had all the early Les Paul and Mary Ford records but I remember flogging them to a local junk shop one day when I needed the money! This guy Mike Borer, that I was talking about, he lived right across the road from me and we used to broadcast to each other by fixing a copper wire between our bedroom windows! It was potentially very dangerous sometimes it would get knocked down by a lorry; we would put the output terminals to the copper wire and the gas pipe and using our old radios and record players we'd broadcast to each other, very often it would all go wrong and blow up! Real radio freaks we were.

I never went to Potter's Music Shop in Croydon, although Ralph is always talking about how good it was; I guess it wasn't open when I started to play. Its worth mentioning R.G.Jones of course who had a recording studio in Morden and the amplifier pioneer Charlie Watkins. Also on the scene was Steve Benbow, who must have been living in Croydon at the time, he was quite a well known performer working in the blues jazz and cabaret clubs. He worked with Denny Wright and drummer Lennie Hastings in some jazz things but he also went out as a soloist and I followed him around quite a bit and learned a few of his songs. I didn't really know him to speak to at the time, but I remember one sunny afternoon in about 1958, Mike Borer and I were sitting in the town hall gardens, strumming away in the little sun house when who should come walking past but Steve Benbow. He saw us playing and stopped to talk to us, which was an honour in itself, but then he took out his guitar- he had this great old Gibson Kalamazoo - and actually started playing with us, we were knocked out by that! Its strange how things like that stay with you for years - a great memory.

Its similar to the first time I saw the film "Quadrophenia" because there was a scene in that film which is identical to something that happened to me years before. There used to be these "milk train raves", where groups of us would leave the Friday night jazz clubs and walk from Soho to Waterloo where we would get the early train - leave London about three in the morning and get to Brighton about six. It was a cheap fare and everyone would spill out into the early cafes and then go jiving and busking on the beach. You'd stay over Saturday night and sleep on the beach if the weather was alright.

I remember this particular time I was down there with Mike and we found somewhere to sleep, sheltered under a stack of deck chairs under the promenade and we were just settling down to sleep about two in the morning when three or four teddy boys showed up. They don't know that we're there, you know, and they're cursing and swearing and kicking all the deck chairs, building houses out of them, totally pissed; meanwhile Mike and I are sitting there shivering in our shoes wondering what to do. So I finally whisper to Mike "There's only one thing for it, get your guitar out and we'll both quietly start playing a twelve bar blues or something"; so we start playing and the teds all look up - "what the **** is that?" There's this scene in Quadrophenia where a couple of guys are under the prom and scared when the rockers turn up and that's exactly how it was, only years earlier. Gradually the teds all heard us playing and came round the pile of deck chairs where we were, it was "what are they gonna do?" you know. If this had been a film it would fade to black and then fade back an hour on, with the teds all raving and dancing, really enjoying themselves, banging time on my guitar case and swinging Mike's guitar cover round in the air. We had a great time all night and into the early morning just jamming away with these guys; when I saw the film I really laughed at that scene because the mods and rockers came along after the beatnik/teddy boy thing and the twain rarely met for any of the various sets of people.

We laugh about it now, but if you found yourself in amongst the wrong group there could be real trouble."


Hector's Hause