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Puritan Chapter 3

Sunday 11th August, 2013

1985 - 1989: Sentimental Mercenary In A Free Fire Zone

After a summer of unpacking boxes and trying to make the new house a home I started at Abingdon School in September 1985. With the determination for morbidity that only a teenager can muster, I hated it and was depressed in a way I had never experienced before. All I wanted was to go back to South London and be with my friends, which I did for most weekends in September and October, taking the train from Didcot to Paddington, tubing my way across the capital to Victoria, and then the train down to Bickley, all on my own, which looking back certainly helped my 13-year old sense of independence. But day to day I was still at a school where I was having trouble making any friends.

Abingdon School, yesterday

Abingdon School, yesterday

Of course I wasn't trying that hard. Each breaktime and lunch time I took a golf ball that I carried with me and kicked it in a slow slalom through the widely spaced trees down the driveway of the school, feeling as navel-gazingly sorry for myself as a teenager ever did. When October turned to November and it got too cold for that I would occupy a vacant classroom and thoughtfully bounce my friend the golf ball around that. I was, not to put too fine a point on it, an absolute laugh riot.

This period of navel gazing is integral to who I ended up being I think. If there is a time when music became solidified as the THING FOR ME then this was it. I hurled myself into practicing at home, both drums

Me destroying the peace of my new neighbourhood

Me destroying the peace of my new neighbourhood
and keyboards (I had been parlaying my parent's guilt over taking me away from Eltham into new gear for sometime, managing to get a Korg Poly 61 synthesiser, a portastudio 4 track recorder and a new Tama drumkit out of it over the next couple of years), and thought about nothing but music during my miserable slalom, probably because the band was my only extant link to my old life - I was still the drummer for Nightshade and would rehearse on my frequent return visits to my old life, even managing a few gigs and some more recording. It also turned me from a relatively happy-go-lucky young man into the very serious furrowed brow that you now see before you.

This was accentuated by the first feelings of disconnectedness from the rest of the exponents in my chosen field. Rik, Nightshade's bass player, now occupied a flat above his father's jewelry shop with his brother, and away from parental influence. When I came down for rehearsals I would often stay the night there before seeing friends and returning home the next day. Those stayovers would mostly involve Adrian, Rik, Big Nige and sundry others drinking heavily in the living room while watching risqué videos, all of which I had no interest in, so my memories of those times are sitting in the hall learning to play a few basic chords on Rik's 12 string acoustic guitar while listening to the sounds of merry hell coming through the wall. Even at the time it struck me that the activity in the living room was the accepted norm for how people should act in and around bands, and that I was a weirdo, but it never caused me a moment of wanting to be like that. Still, I felt isolated and often uncomfortable.

I did eventually start coming out of the fug however, once again via a musical link. I had been talking to almost no-one at the school to the extent that I later found out that for much of my first term my colleagues thought I was a very peculiar demi-mute freak. But as we were waiting for a teacher one day I overheard another boy showing off his new drum machine. I sidled over and tentatively started asking questions about it. Luckily the boy, Alan Welby, was a very friendly and positive fellow, immediately inviting me in to the conversation as an equal and a friend. I talked about my recently blackmailed portastudio and previous musical experience, no doubt exaggerating my 6 or so gigs into world tours undertaken before my move to the new school. But the ice was broken, and I slowly began to crack open my own shell, making a lifelong friend in another boy Ian Patrick, who would help me integrate socially both within the school and in the local town. I had also determined for myself that I would start pulling myself out of it, after one particularly teary afternoon when my mum told me she had been walking past the school at break time and spotted me on my own, head down, hands in pockets, slowly tracing my path up and down the driveway. She watched for half an hour until she couldn't take any more, and when she told me about it later she was crying, wondering out loud what she and dad had done to me. I was crying too, and I told her it would all be fine, and that I would sort my own bloody self out and that she shouldn't cry any more.

Alan, being a talkative type, blabbed around about me resulting in a boy, who introduced himself as the 'manager' of a school band, approaching me about using my portastudio to record his charges sometime during 1986. And this is the point where the path that I'm on right now, sitting on this tour bus winging its way through Missouri, can be traced right back to, albeit with twists and turns and cul-de-sacs along the way. The band was called The Illiterate Hands (my god, the mid-80s public schoolness of it) and consisted of guitarist Matt Hawksworth, bassist Simon Gardner, keyboardist Jonathan Greenwood and, most importantly to me, singer Andy Yorke.

Not that there was a flash of soul-mate recognition, not between two ridiculously emotionally guarded teenage boys. Initially all the talk was business between Jonny and I, bonding over the fact that we both used the same drum machine (an add on to the ZX Spectrum 48k called the SpecDrum). We discussed how to attack the recording of the songs that they had and set a date for them to come over to my house in Marcham to put it all together. Andy was very quiet throughout all of this - I had no idea what he thought about the whole thing, but carried on in the hope that he wasn't as angry as he looked.

The demo tape came out pretty well. It was all exceedingly twee, but we did a good job, getting 8 songs done in a day or two. My particular abiding memory of that is my first experience of Andy being able from time to time to transcend his natural downbeat grumpiness to do something that seems totally out of character.

Andy in the Abingdon School common room

Andy in the Abingdon School common room
In this case there was a middle 8 in a song that had a jaunty musical theatre kind of feel, and I suggested a whistling solo (like I said, twee). Andy mumbled 'yeah, sure, I can do that' and stepped up to the mic and let out a melody so happy and skippity and joyous that it reduced Simon, Jonny and me to asphyxiated hysterics as we tried to avoid ruining the take with audible laughter. Turning around to see us turning slowly purple he concluded his take with a deadpan 'what?' prompting a massive outburst of laughs, but it was the perfect thing, delivered first take and almost in total contradiction of Andy's personality.listen to an mp3 of this track{Michelle (Listen To Reason) from the first Illiterate Hands demo}

I was happy to do the first demo their way, but with my penchant for Iron Maiden and Marillion, I certainly fancied reducing the twee factor. I suggested that maybe I could replace the SpecDrum in the band line up, so we had an audition in the school theatre. Since up to this point they had been rehearsing in bedrooms through tiny amplifiers the sheer sonic assault of a drumkit in full flight rather shocked them, so much so that using discarded scenery they built a sound baffle around me. Slightly surreal, being essentially inside a deep box with the rest of the band outside, and me having to pop up in the middle after each song to find out what they thought.

Andy and I had begun to bond strongly by this point. He, in a transparent attempt to wean me off INXS, Marillion and Iron Maiden, made me an REM compilation tape which not only introduced me to my new favourite band, but also sealed my love of Andy's singing voice since he saw fit to include two tracks of him and his big brother Tom (later to gain an extraneous 'h') singing together (one of the songs was Pale Blue Eyes by The Velvet Underground but the other has been lost in the mist of imperfect memory - I have a feeling it may have been Dreams by The Everly Brothers).

Not long after this Tom, apparently jealous that his younger sibling's band had such a good sounding demo (!), asked if I would record some songs for his band On A Friday. Tom was already a known musical figure in the school, with a constant surly (but not unpleasant, if you get my meaning) attitude, long herringbone coat and army surplus satchel slung over his shoulders. The term before I arrived at the school there had been a semi-legendary production of the musical Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat, where Tom had taken the vocal role of the narrator (Joseph was played by another person who'd figure largely in my future, Jim Crosskey), so Tom's already phenomenal voice was well-known to the school. They had recorded demos in the school music room using a mate of theirs, and it seemed they fulfilled much of the same role that Nightshade had at Eltham, soundtracking school gigs and parties. The other significant outcome that the Illiterate Hands demo had was Tom press-ganging Jonny to join his bassist brother Colin in the On A Friday lineup, which in hindsight was a good thing.

OAF had recorded three tracks at the semi-legendary Union Street Studios in Oxford but Tom was already a prolific writer and wanted to get another slew of stuff down, so we gathered in my bedroom for me to commit it all to portastudio.

Phil Selway laying down the tracks in my bedroom

Phil Selway laying down the tracks in my bedroom
The wall to wall IQ, Marillion and Iron Maiden posters were anathema to the fearsomely indie five piece, but I don't think they let their prejudices get in the way (although there was plenty of good natured piss-taking, including a snap I still have of Tom, Colin, guitarist Ed O'Brien and drummer Phil Selway posing ironically in front of one of my Maiden posters).

Tom, Ed, Phil and Colin mocking Iron Maiden

Tom, Ed, Phil and Colin mocking Iron Maiden
I was quite proud of the work I did, and if I contributed anything to their development it could be that I encouraged Tom very strongly to drop the nasal American accent that he had thus far adopted on his recorded output.

I had recording gear. There were bands at school. This made me somewhat popular. Alan Welby, my first point of contact with other humans at the institution, was bass player in a band that if I recall were at the time called Skag And The Gynecologists with guitarist / singer Jim Crosskey (he who played Joseph) and drummer Dan Shotton. I went over to Dan's house a mile up the road and about 12 rungs up the social ladder from mine to put tracks down for them. There was also People Like Us, led by enigmatic Rob Jolliffe and featuring drummer Martin 'Dig' Diment who was amongst the group of close friends I was now developing, who I spent a pleasurable couple of days demoing around the keyboard player's house in Abingdon. Later on they would write and record one of my favourite songs ever to come from any Oxford band, called Nobody. It's a lost classic.

It was also during this time that Ian started dragging me down to a youth group called Quest, attached to St Helen's church in the town. This despite the fact that one of the offshoots of the move to Oxfordshire had been me quitting all kinds of church attendance, the first steps to my later total atheism. The only remotely interesting or relevant stuff to happen here, outside of all typical teenage development, was my first girlfriend introducing me to the entire back catalogue of Genesis. Her dad was a huge Genesis nut (I remember him driving us through Oxford with a bootleg of their 1978 Knebworth show on the cassette player) and she made me tapes of all their albums, starting a life-long musical love affair that despite all sensible arguments to the contrary continues to this day.

I had come out of my shell much more now. Ian, Andy, Jonny and I had become our own little clique, congregating in break times and after school on a bench in Albert Park

The HQ of the Doomed Express

The HQ of the Doomed Express
that neighboured the school. We named ourselves The Doomed Express, a phrase taken from a not massively memorable horror spoof called Hysterical, that indicated our success rate in dealing with the opposite sex. Despite all that though that's the only thing that vaguely approaches the "it's the best years of your life" cliche, a group of four closely matched friends getting to spend time together every day just hanging out.

Nightshade continued, although now with Adrian as vocalist, and Roger Nunn came up to our house in Marcham to record another three songs with us (Arctic Summerlisten to an mp3 of this track{Arctic Summer by Nightshade}, Thunder and Three Yellow Feathers, with me contributing lyrics here and there this time.)

Bloody hell. I suppose it was still the 80s.

Bloody hell. I suppose it was still the 80s.
We managed various gigs and things, including our first absolutely real show out in the real world, at a pub on a dangerous street corner in far South London1, and another at a club in Oxford as a co-headline with On A Friday. While we were writing more and becoming more ambitious the sporadic nature of rehearsing and gigging meant we could never get anywhere, even with Adrian's constant big brother berating of every tiny error he perceived on the drums. Despite the discomfort it did serve to make me acutely aware of my own contribution and give me the urge to chase perfection where I could.



Things bounced along and developed wherever they could. A friend of Illiterate Hands' from school had a dad who worked at a local manufacturer of mixing desks (SSL, one of the top professional desks in the world, built in the village of Begbroke just outside Oxford) and he wanted to introduce his son to the business, so it was suggested that he spend a couple of days recording us in their test studio at the factory. This was a great opportunity for a young band to spend some time in a top-class facility, and was amazing and instructive fun, especially since our friend's dad seemed quite enthused with the quality of the band and took over the session, not really giving his son a look in as he made everything sound as good as he could.listen to an mp3 of this track{One Little Question by Illiterate Hands}

This was in the months running up to 'O' levels, when of course I should have been working hard to secure my academic future. That summer I had an alternative big plan. I was going to hire a mixing desk to partner my portastudio and in swift succession record Nightshade, Illiterate Hands (on my advice they'd dropped the 'The' from the name, not the first time that this would happen), possibly some of my solo stuff that I'd been writing and some solo songs for Tom as well. I remember that August being a great month, head down recording for almost the entire time. Nightshade had also cut a three track demo at Union Street and wanted to extend this to a 'full length' demo tape to sell at shows, and similarly the Hands had the two tracks from SSL which we wanted to partner with another pile.

Once again I must significantly doff my hat to my long-suffering mum (dad worked long hours, so it was less of an imposition on him), who gave up her dining room and hallway as a recording venue and kept everyone supplied with tea and snacks throughout. Despite one or two disasters (including erasing a few seconds in the middle of Nightshade track) everything came out sounding pretty good, but most valuably I once again learned a great deal about the whole process. The solo demos for Tom were particularly good, with some amazing vocal arrangements sung by him and Andy, the only time they appeared together on a proper recording until 2009.

I passed my 'O' levels with reasonable grades (except Art, which I failed dammit) and continued on into the 6th form at Abingdon. This wasn't my first choice though - by this time I was convinced that music was my life, and my first instinct was to leave school and go for it full time. Dad entered the fray and was very insistent that I should do 'A' levels, and honestly I wasn't too worried about this being an argument that I lost - I enjoyed learning and could see the sense in having some further qualifications to fall back on if things were not to work out as hoped.

It was about this time that I started noticing very distinctly a girl (let's call her X) whose walk to her school took her past me most mornings. It was by no means the first time I'd seen her - my first girlfriend bruised me quite badly when my eyes lingered on this X for a little too long during a camping week with the Quest youth group, and I'd seen her at Quest often after that - but she appeared to be maturing into my first and biggest adolescent obsession. I've been mostly skimming over my interpersonal relationships, but this one is going to come up again and again, and have some relevance to who I am and what I do. Keep your eyes peeled.

For the time being though I started in on my choice of 'A' levels (Physics, Maths and Chemistry; I hadn't done music at 'O' level so it would have been difficult to do it at 'A' level; balls) and kept at all the possible musical outlets I had. Nightshade had started upping the game a bit, made easier by the fact that both Adrian and Rik were now at University in Oxford. We changed our name to Kiss The Dirt (I've no idea why substituting one shit name for another was deemed a necessity), moved me to keyboards, brought Roger Nunn in on drums and recruited American Betsy Oana on backing vocals, embarking on gigs in and around Oxford, many at college balls and events but venturing out into the town from time to time as well. Illiterate Hands were doing some gigs here and there also, including a couple of supports to On A Friday, even managing one show that achieved some small school-based notoriety. We played at the youth club in the centre of Abingdon and, despite the nature of the band, everything got somewhat raucous.

Abingdon Youth Club, now called The Net

Abingdon Youth Club, now called The Net
The headmaster had words in assembly on the Monday afterwards, letting everyone know that a great many fixtures and fittings had been broken and that the owners of the club had been unimpressed by drunk teenagers vomiting off the balcony onto the crowd below. If this was supposed to shame anyone it really failed in its desire, just making the whole deal sound like the coolest thing ever. Even better, we were told that apparently the headmistress of St. Helen and St. Katherine's girl's school nearby was giving the same talk to her assembly, making the party sound even more unmissable. Apart from all this shenaniganing I was still teaching myself keyboards through the medium of learning other people's songs (mostly REM, Phil Collins, Queen and Genesis) whilst also writing various songs of my own. Overall it was an energising time.

Eventually, and through some dogged persistence, I ended up going out with X. She was my second official and proper girlfriend (it's true I came to this kind of activity later than many), with a semi-relationship with a very cool (in my eyes) singer guitarist that filled the gap between number 1 and X. With X it was a relatively typical relationship of that age (16 to 17) except for the fact that somewhere down the line I had decided that I wanted to save my virginity for the woman I would marry, so unlike some of my other enthusiastically rutting friends my physical activities were strictly of other, ahem, varieties. With the long period of hindsight allotted to me I have tried to analyse why X, over anyone else from my past, has exerted such a strong gravitational pull on my soul, and one of the few distinct differences that I could come up with between my relationship with her, and that of anyone else of that time, is that I never achieved an orgasm with her, perhaps leaving me with a sense of some unfinished business. Indeed X is the only woman with who I have found it necessary to fake an orgasm. God knows why; she was gorgeous and funny and flinty and I was nuts about her. Maybe it was nerves.

She left me after 10 or so months of boyfriend and girlfriending. It chucked me back into the depressed state of mind I had been in on my first arrival in Abingdon so much so that that when I saw her at the school ball to mark our graduation I experienced my first full blown panic attack (I hyperventilated to the point of passing out, which was a surprise to be sure). Thankfully the conscious miseryguts state didn't last too long, although I would later find out it had crept into my subconscious, into my soul, to grow like a cancer. But I now had another mistress in music, and one who would always react positively to the amount of work put in.

I took 'A' levels in 1989 and once again got reasonable, if not outstanding, grades. In fact in our household, with a Professor at the head of the table and my Oxford scholar academic brother to his right hand, I was a significant under-achiever, but I don't recall it even beginning to bother me. I was now definitely going to leave education. And I was going to do my level best to make music with every spare nook and cranny that my life would allow.

MattJW, Sat 16th September 2017, 08:23:32 PM
Nothing wrong with a bit of Iron Maiden (I was never a music snob) and Marillion were - and continue to be - a truly great rock band! Do you still like 'em, Nigel?
Analisa, Fri 30th August 2013, 04:48:48 AM
Loving this (and the photos) as much as everyone else! I wasn't able to post the comment immediately, but I read this edition today during a portion of a teacher workshop that I tuned out because it was irrelevant to the subject I teach. I had to stifle my laughter as the presenter kept addressing this room of teachers while I was reading the anecdote about the school heads' condemnation of that weekend's debauchery effectively elevating the social standing of the students involved... SO true, and so hilariously written. I really enjoy reading these; keep them coming!
Mel, Fri 16th August 2013, 12:33:10 PM
Thanks for writing this Nigel, I'm really enjoying the series.
Sally, Sun 11th August 2013, 07:30:23 PM
Your writing is wonderful, Nigel. The way you put your thoughts and experiences into words is ace. Please keep up the good work, I love reading your posts :)
Hannah, Sun 11th August 2013, 11:20:02 AM
This is so awesome to read, particularly as I too went to school and grew up in Abingdon, (Our Lady's Convent) so recognising the places and your experiences there is so relatable. Keep up the writing Nigel!
Becki, Sun 11th August 2013, 09:45:46 AM
Nigel, I love reading your thoughts. It's so compelling - so much so that I'm a little late for work because I couldn't bear to put it down. I am looking forward to reading more.
Kelly, Sun 11th August 2013, 08:52:33 AM
Good freaking lord, this is my favourite blog to come across in a long time. Very cool! I am impressed about how much you can recall about your state of mind at this age.
Lewis Slade, Sun 11th August 2013
Nigel, you're a legend man, for a massive UBT fan hearing thoe IH tracks is gold! LOVE reading this, keep it coming xx


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