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Nigel Powell: Attack the Blog!


Puritan Chapter One

Monday 22nd April, 2013

1971 - 1982: It's Cold Outside, But It Gets So Hot In Here

Oh shit. That's mum and dad. Keep your head, don't giggle, just keep tidying up the bottles and cans into the bin bag in the garage. I think they're angry, but I'm finding it curiously hard to read these people who I've known since I emerged into the world. My brain feels like it's got a kettle element in and the whole thing has turned molten and boiling like mud, big bubbles exploding on the surface making it hard to focus and converse and recognise. My big brother Adrian is here as well, and another friend, but I feel like I'm in one of these mud bubbles possibly floating a few inches off the floor. Hold it together. It's the night of my first gig. And it's the first time I've been drunk.

I don't know about you but in any book like this, this is the chapter that I skim. Surely you know the one - "I was born to Jill and Michael Sousaphone on January 15th 1967 at Sister Mary's Hospital in County Armagh... Jill's father, my grandfather, was a bull of a man who had been at Paschendale and would proudly show his neatly stitched row of 8 bullet wounds to anyone who didn't find the sight of his buttocks nauseating... Michael was a carpenter by trade, so naturally my go-kart was the best of anyone's". That's not going to happen here. I'm the fucking drummer, not Barack Obama or J K Rowling, so who, frankly, gives a shit about the minutae of my upbringing?

However if anyone is going to give the remotest flying twat about this anyway (and if you're going to write you have to at least pretend to yourself that someone will), then maybe context is important. If I were to have an editor for this, I would imagine them saying "stick to the spine of your story", the spine in this case being "how and why I became a musician", "why don't I drink" and "what has this meant for my life on the road". So some bare bones of how it all began is regrettably inevitable.

I was born 1st October 1971. I've noticed that 'professional' biographers at this point will research interesting facts about the time of their birth (who was Prime Minister, international events of note, who won the big sporting events of the time), but frankly you've got access to google, so fuck off and do it yourself if you actually care. It doesn't mean anything to me - like everyone else I don't have any active memories for at least 3 years after that, and even then it's patchy and terminally irrelevant. In terms of what we're talking about there's nothing much of note until 1980, when we moved from the terraced house behind Bickley1 station that I was born into to a larger detached 5 minutes down the road.



Me and my big brother Adrian. Yes, he was the neat and organised one.

Me and my big brother Adrian. Yes, he was the neat and organised one.

But maybe I'm being disingenuous. Maybe I should sketch in the background a little more so you can make up your own mind about things, say "aha, he can't see it himself because he's too close, but clearly he has issues here". For those of you who just want the meat, I'm foreseeing at least two paragraphs you can skate or skip across.

I was always middle class. Even though the first house I remember, at 2 The Pantiles in Bickley, was a tiny terrace with only two bedrooms it was still in a quiet little cul-de-sac, with the peace only somewhat shattered by the presence, just over the fence at the end of the close, of Bickley train station. The tracks themselves were in a deep cut keeping the noise of the passing trains minimal, but for many years afterwards my older brother (and only sibling) Adrian could recite the platform announcements confidently. In fact I'm sure that to this day if you needed to know the stations that trains would call at going from Bickley up the line to Victoria Station in Central London (the commuter path my dad took daily), or the other direction to St. Mary's Cray, he could rattle them off without hesitation. The only musical disappointment connected to the size of the Pantiles house was, as I discovered later, that when my great Aunt died she left my parents her Steinway grand piano, but since it would have taken up the entire ground floor of the house, leaving only about 6 inches around the edge, they had to sell it.

Later it began to seem that my middle classness was by combination rather than birth. Dad came from lower down the caste list - a twin born in Chippenham, Wiltshire to stoutly working class parents - but he dragged himself out of it by dint of his unnatural intelligence. I've no idea if being cleverer than everybody else, both in his school and most likely his town, was a burden - I've found it difficult enough throughout history to get him to enthuse about what he did earlier that afternoon, let alone hear about his childhood. But I do know he exploded out of his small town low aspiration comprehensive, went to medical school and subsequently began collecting PhDs (he's up to 4 and a professorship now, if you must know).

And at a certain rung he bumped into my mum traveling down the social ladder. She was born into a well-to-do Blackheath family but seemed to be possessed of a determination, that she shared with her two elder sisters and eldest brother, to do things for herself. She trained as a nursery nurse, and met my dad when she was being secretarial around Middlesex University. He employed her to type out his PhD (the first one!), and clearly some shocking shenanigans ensued since they married a mere 9 months after meeting. My brother beat me out of the womb by 3 1/2 years, and I turned out to be something of a surprise after pregnancy complications subsequent to my brother seemed to put paid to the prospect of any further Powells. But yay dad's sperm; I made it.

Sorry skipping gang, that was 3 paragraphs of exactly what I was taking the piss out of earlier. But for the amateur psychologists our there, here's one more childhood story for you to sink your teeth into. For my brother's 8th or 9th birthday his party was to go down to the park and play football with his friends. Mum suggested that since she was preparing the meal my dad could take them, and maybe toddling little me could tag along so I didn't get under her feet. Good football was played, and sometime later a sweaty team of boys returned all glowing to the house. "Good game?" idly enquired my mum. And, "where's Nigel?". Not being of a sporting bent I had been placed on a swing in the playground while the important manly competition took place. I hadn't really noticed when they left, although I do particularly remember the incident - I think it was the first time I'd seen a sunset, as I sat motionless on the swing, my momentum long since spent. A somewhat flustered dad appeared just as visibility was dropping away to nothing to return an apparently totally unconcerned me to the bosom of the family.

I don't particularly remember music being a massive part of family life early on. Bob Dylan got spins on the household turntable, and I know my parents owned many Beatles platters, but they didn't penetrate my consciousness at that time. I much preferred "I Tawt I Taw A Puddy Tat" listen on spotify by cartoon characters Sylvester and Tweetie Pie, until my brother smashed the record over some childhood tantrum. I do remember being upset by that, and slightly unable to believe that music could actually break. I can also put down the beginnings of a later predilection for prog rock to my parent's passion for a French pop instrumental composer called André Gagnon, whose pieces in retrospect all sound like After The Ordeal by Genesis2 listen on spotify played at 33 rpm instead of 45. listen on spotify

But somehow my brother and I caught the bug. Or perhaps my brother caught the bug and I followed him in the way that younger siblings are wont to do, even when said older sibling had abused his position in the shared bedroom of their first house to cause untold suffering (by the application of, for instance, Dutch Ovens). Naturally one of the memoir motives for anyone has to be revenge and redress in print.



The house in Highfield Road. Not pictured - racket of drums emerging from room above garage

The house in Highfield Road. Not pictured - racket of drums emerging from room above garage

I digress. Won't be the first time you hear that. By the time we moved to Highfield Road in Bickley in 1980 (I left one house to attend school, and walked back to a different one) Adrian had already been taking classical guitar lessons for some years, and by all accounts excelling - I really enjoyed listening to him practicing John Williams' Cavatina listen on spotify in the house - while making some forays into electric guitar playing with friends from the church we attended, Central Bromley Methodist. Both of us joined the church folk group, The Bridgebuilders, me just as a cute widdle singer, Adrian adding yet another acoustic guitar to the mix. We had a uniform of blue jeans and a bright red collared shirt, and we played during services at the church, including a special service invented apparently just for us called the Folk Communion. We also managed to get ourselves pimped out to other associated churches around the country - possibly my first experience of touring. My strongest memory of that group is the other cute widdle singer Amanda Whalley vomiting apparently unchewed and undigested spaghetti out of her nose after a rehearsal. The things a 10 year old mind chooses to store. The Bridgebuilders came to an abrupt end when it was apparently discovered that the willowy leader of the group was apparently having an affair with the Reverend of the church, resulting in the overnight disappearance of The Bridgebuilders, the Reverence, and his daughter Claire, on whom I had had a profound and long lasting pre-pubescent crush.



The Bridgebuilders outside the church. Me front and centre, Adrian looking moody in the back

The Bridgebuilders outside the church. Me front and centre, Adrian looking moody in the back

My listening tastes had moved on to Adam and the Ants, with Antmusic being the first 7" single I ever bought, followed by the Kings Of The Wild Frontier albumlisten on spotify not too long after. Many things from childhood you return to in later years and discover that they were, not to put too fine a point on it, shit. I'm sure I Tawt I Taw A Puddy Tat is not up there with the best of Springsteen. But, along with a generation of other people, having your first pop sensation be Adam Ant, and more particularly that first album for CBS, is no bad thing. I listened to it recently, and not only is it not shit, it's actually far far better than I gave it credit for at the time, with Marco Pirroni's ear for a killer riff and penchant for unusual key changes making the whole thing the perfect balance between pop and rock.

This was still idle young dilly dallying with music, though as Adrian's interest in music grew I did become more involved. Quite early on we had a hi-fi with a microphone input, and also a second portable tape cassette player. I constructed myself a snare drum from a catering size margarine pot with a hundred or so pieces of cut up wire clattering around in the bottom. I don't recall having any special yen to be drummer, although like most kids I was more than happy to hit things with wooden spoons at any and all times, but Adrian needed a drummer, so that was that. Adrian would play guitar and I would wallop the snare as we played a song into the hi-fi (usually something from our Bridgebuilders repertoire but rocked up), and then we'd take that cassette, put it in the other player and play along, Adrian on a second electric guitar part and me singing. I do remember doing lots of these kind of sound on sound recording experiments, including messing about with speed, and getting a small hint of interest in the process of recording things.

Adrian's music taste was also to have a profound effect on my later development. While I was idolising, and occasionally dressing like, Adam Ant, Adrian's taste was heading rockwards. Saxon, Rainbow but most importantly Iron Maiden were the diet of the day, and it couldn't help but seep in when it was being played at supersonic volume throughout the house. But it was to be my best friend at school who was to plant a seed that would have unfortunate future consequences.

I moved from my primary, Bickley Parva, to my first ‚'proper' school, Eltham College in Mottingham. Dad, obviously stricken with terror that Adrian and I would slide back down the greasy class pole that he'd dragged himself up, was insistent that we would have a private eduction, but finances being what they were the upper echelon was never an option. Eltham, as far as I have an understanding of it, was considered just a hair's breadth above a comprehensive - class sizes were smaller, facilities were somewhat better and we HAD A RUGBY TEAM, but it was rough as fuck and not a place for the fey or faint-hearted. I struck up a friendship early on with Darren White, possibly mostly predicated on geographical convenience, since he lived a convenient 5 minute walk from me on a posh street across from the station. His house seemed vast to me and, with a later knowledge of property values, was probably extraordinarily expensive - leafy street in the close commuter belt, at least 6 bedrooms that I remember, with a massive garden containing a succession of greenhouses and outhouses where fun (which at this time mostly involved destroying ketchup-filled Action Men with smuggled french fireworks) could be had.

I spent huge tracts of time around there, mostly playing on Darren's Dragon 32 computer, and I didn't give a rat's arse what his dad did. Who does? He was some heavyset bloke who wore satin jackets and slightly tinted glasses and told us to wipe our feet when we came in. But he was friendly enough, and invited Adrian and me to his work one day. As it turned out he managed the hard rock band Nazareth, and inviting us to work involved going to the final night of their Shapes Of Things tour at Hammersmith Odeon.

I imagine most people's first experience of attending a gig is using the ticket your mum bought you to furtively gain entry while underage to your favourite band's nearest show, then hanging about at the back feeling nervous until getting up the courage to shove your way forwards to get close when they actually play. Not for me such prosaic experiences, oh no. I was picked up by a stretch limo from my house and whisked to the stage door of the venue, where we were escorted by a satin jacketed flunky to front row seats on the balcony to watch the show, with it's high decibels and flash pot 1970sness. Then to backstage, where we drank bucks fizz with the band and they signed copies of the live album that someone had given us. Then a limo back to my front door. My young brain went - gigs, y'know, they're pretty fucking cool.

It probably wasn't long after this that our house on Highfield Road was burgled while we were on holiday in Chippenham. Insurance paid out (my how times have changed), but there was a great number of irreplaceable items amongst what was lost - mum's engagement ring, jewelry handed down in the family, that kind of thing. So my ever enterprising brother, who had started a band at Eltham where he was 3 years my senior and was in need of a drummer, convinced the parents to buy me a drumkit. My memory of this was that I was pretty much "yeah, sure, whatever" about it and Adrian was the driving force.



Me unconvincingly pretending to play my first drumkit

Me unconvincingly pretending to play my first drumkit

So it came to pass that our house was the recipient of a white Rogers R360 5 piece drum set, and a flimsy book entitled ‚'Teach Yourself Rock Drums' which I worked my way through. A couple of the things seemed tricky for a couple of days, but I was confidently holding down beats before too long. We got together in the spare bedroom to rehearse cover versions with friends from church, named ourselves Cassiopea (which I painstakingly spray painted onto a large piece of wood to make a backdrop) and it all seemed like jolly good fun. And then mum and dad, who had clearly no idea about my brother, suggested that they go out of an evening and that Adrian could organise a party for him and his friends. Even without the benefit of myspace, messiness was almost bound to ensue.

Adrian and I worked all day clearing the furniture out of the connected dining room and living room, then setting up the band equipment on the ‚'stage' (the dining room) pointing towards the ‚'audience' (the living room). We had two drummers, not wanting Sean from church to feel left out, Adrian on guitar, a guy called Nick playing bass and a collection of different singers for different songs. Sean and I also traded places playing keyboards as well.

Once The Authority headed off for town at 7 o'clock about 2 billion of Adrian's friends, plus Darren White to keep me company, descended on the house. Church group bollocks - this was more like the hordes of mongol. Beer, wine and cider (I don't remember spirits being a big thing) started appearing, bought by bigger brothers or lifted from parent's stashes, until there was a pile in our garage not unlike the Devil's Tower Roy Neary constructs in Close Encounters, except Bulmers and Skol instead of dirt and mashed potato. Even at this earlier and more impressionable age though I was setting the beginnings of a pattern - though tempted there was no way I was drinking anything before my first ever gig. I needed to be the best I could be. What a twat.

I had a tape of this show for many years, now sadly disappeared. I don't remember the full setlist, but it certainly included 11 O'clock Tick Tock by U2listen on spotify and He Knows You Know by Marillion listen on spotify. I enjoyed it, but it wasn't a Damascus-style life changing experience. Getting drunk afterwards was totally boss3, however.



My first ever gig. Note the backdrop spraypainted onto a piece of chipboard. That's dedication!

My first ever gig. Note the backdrop spraypainted onto a piece of chipboard. That's dedication!

Having never touched a drop of alcohol, I did as everyone else was doing and launched into the cider with aplomb. I have no idea how much I had, no doubt it was a tiny amount, but it was still plenty to turn my skinny alcohol-virgin body into a semi-solid mass of blubber. Everything looked distinctly different, the rooms heaved this way and that as if I was on a boat and I talked to girls older than me without a hint of embarrassment. Appealing stuff for a 12 year old.

When mum and dad returned at midnight I can still recall their almost total shock and lack of comprehension of what faced them. The music in the lounge was loud enough that they probably heard it as their Vauxhall Viva turned into our road. The house was full of half-functioning 14, 15 and 16 year olds; I particularly remember that the stairs, which faced the front door, were impassable, containing as they did 40 or so ruddily woozy teenagers. Empty cans and bottles (large cider bottles, in these pre-Sol days) covered every horizontal surface, and some of the vertical ones. And, most distressingly of all for them, the parquet floor in the hall was almost invisible beneath a couple of inches of liquid effluvium. What it was I don't know, and I didn't care because I was pissed and happy.

Kids were ejected, black bin bags were filled and mops were repeatedly wrung as Adrian and I put the house back together under the baleful gaze of my not-to-be-crossed mother, but whatever; in the back of my mind that thought was there again: gigs, y'know, they're pretty fucking cool.


Kelly, Tue 16th July 2013, 06:14:49 AM
This is fucking fantastic!!!
 
name, Sat 27th April 2013, 05:22:41 PM
As entertaining and insightful as all your other entries. Keep 'em coming. (Side note: It's interesting--to me, at least--how my current 12/13-year-old students, some 5,500 miles or so away from the setting of this story--have resurrected "boss" as the superlative du jour.)

Analisa, Sun 28th April 2013
and somehow I forgot to input my name...oops
 
 
Yvonne, Tue 23rd April 2013, 08:12:54 PM
A delight to read, it´s refreshing, charming and with a bit of humor thrown in. I really enjoyed it. Go ahead Nigel!
 
Sally, Tue 23rd April 2013, 01:28:49 PM
You're writing is wonderful, Nigel. The pictures are brilliant too.
And, we share a birthday! I was born on 1st October too. 1990 for me, though.
I can't wait to read the next chapter.
 
Adam phillips, Tue 23rd April 2013, 02:45:09 AM
Excellent work!!
I can't wait to read more.
 
Wendy, Tue 23rd April 2013, 12:46:57 AM
That was a good read. I'm not the type the skips or even skims the background info chapter. History is important (as Frank's shirt says). Love the pictures!
 
SteffffiQ, Tue 23rd April 2013, 12:33:22 AM
As a scouser, particularly loving the use of 'boss' & then the corresponding footnote to explain it :)

A well written & entertaining 1st chapter - would like to read more...

& gigs, y'know, they really are pretty fuckin cool ;)

 

Footnotes:

  1. a small town in the southern suburbs of London, officially in Kent and just down the road from Bromley
  2. from their 1973 album Selling England By The Pound
  3. Liverpudlian expression meaning something being good, enjoyable, a positive experience

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