A school revue it was, called take-off!, when I was twelve, young enough to be gratified and think it hilarious that my maths teacher, Mr Wolton, (and many other very game teachers) could appear on stage in comedy sketches. I sat next to John Moore, a friend dating back to primary school. I was there on 1st April 1969. There was a relaxed end-of-term vibe, and everything seemed very funny.
My cousin David appeared playing a tune on a colourful structure he called magic mushrooms (!), a strange plaster sculpture he had made in art class, which he said “surprisingly turned out to be tuneful!” I was quietly proud of how well he was received.
But the revelation that evening was a real live rock/jazz band – the first live gig I had heard – king commode and his expanding rubber band, modishly foregoing capitalisation that evening in common with the rest of the event programme. The lineup was given thus:
on a good night the band includes snake-hips sugden martino g-string clarke liver lips louis leach steve bongos stead paul fuzz-face devonshire ralph licorice-stick compton chris bass-man newman beasley the bum colonel richard entwistle & finally lord fantastic
I didn’t know at the time, but these boys had auditioned for the TV talent show Opportunity Knocks the year before:
I wonder how many of the lads in this band – which I now know comprised five boys from Watford Grammar and five from Bushey Grammar – went on to become solicitors and accountants. When the band started playing I was transfixed: I stared unblinking at the stage, laughing with joy, taking in the noise, the rhythm and the stage antics. I can recall only one of their numbers: consistent with the zany stage names, they performed what seemed, to my untutored ears, a storming version of the Bonzos’ Death Cab for Cutie – an Elvis pastiche which the Bonzos had performed in the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour. Sadly, no footage survives of king commode and his expanding rubber band, but here are the Bonzos (more properly the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band) performing the song on the children’s TV programme Do Not Adjust Your Set with bonus footage of a young Michael Palin:
Thanks to the miracle of the internet, I have been able to find the exact date: a search on the band name led me to the website of none other than liver lips louis leach, now going under the more sedate handle of Richard Leach.
Richard is a now multi-award winning jazz player, still playing his trombone all around Europe. He was able to help me out:
Yes, I was on the Take-off gig at Watford Boys Grammar and can actually pinpoint the exact date for you, purely and simply because I remember one of our WGS friends who was compering the evening bounding on stage and announcing over the mic that ‘for those of you who are wondering what has happened at Vicarage Road this evening it has finished Watford 1 Southport…..lost’. I’ve just used ‘Mr. Google’ to learn that it was 1st April 1969, halcyon days for the Hornets that season as they won the Division 3 championship a few weeks later.
Thanks, Richard, for your amazing recall! We have since learned that this was not the only night of the show. Chris Marshall, a contemporary of the Commodes, got in touch and was able to supply this information:
I went back to my 1969 diary and was puzzled to note I recorded seeing the show on Monday 31st March. On the Tuesday 1st April I noted seeing Led Zeppelin at Klooks Kleek and your article referred to Watford 1-Southport 0.
At first I thought I’d somehow got my diary wrong at the time so I checked both the WFC and LZ dates and they were both indeed on 1st April!
Which leads me to conclude Take-off was not a one-off but at least a two-off and maybe more!
Isn’t the internet wonderful for aggregating information about small pieces of history? Richard Leach was also kind enough to reach out, as we say, to the other band members to enable me to grow my knowledge of the band to an extent I previously could only have dreamed of:
A couple of the band have remembered that we played Hello Dolly, which I used to sing in a throaty, gravelled voice a la Louis Armstrong and also recalled that I used a tin of stage *****face as well. You’d better not mention that in this day and age Rik otherwise I won’t be able to run for the President of Canada position again!! Apparently, John Jenkins, one of the production team on the show recorded it but wiped the tape clean thinking it really was Louis Armstrong. Blimey, I didn’t know I sounded that authentic.
There was definitely a lot of influence from the Bonzos, so it’s quite possible that we played ‘Jollity Farm’ (complete with all the animal noises), ‘Jazz, Delicious Hot, Disgusting Cold’ and ‘Mickey’s Son and Daughter’.
Paul Devonshire also remembers us playing ‘Rock Me Baby’ in ‘take-off’ featuring Chris Newman on guitar. Chris went on to play with Diz Disley, Stephane Grappelli and Fred Wedlock, even composing ‘The Oldest Swinger in Town’ for him.
martino g-string clarke has also followed the trend of simplifying his name, now preferring to be known as Martin Clarke. Martin was able to add another nugget:
We did do our own version of “God Save the Queen” which broke out into Saints after everyone had got to their feet.
Thanks to the assistance I’ve had from Richard and other band members, I’m proud to provide a definitive list of the band that night:
Mark Sugden (trumpet & vocals)
Richard Entwistle (tenor sax)
Paul Devonshire (clarinet, alto sax & baritone sax)
Ralph Compton (clarinet)
Richard Leach (trombone)
Roger Hillier (piano)
Martin Clarke (banjo)
Chris Newman (guitar & bass guitar)
John Elliot (tuba)
Steve Stead (drums)
We’ll have to leave Roger Hillier and John Elliot to fight over which was beasley the bum and which was lord fantastic. Or, possibly, finally lord fantastic.
Looking at this photo suggests to me that making music and having a laugh is not a bad recipe for life. Perhaps the odd pint doesn’t hurt either.
I had no yardstick by which to measure the quality of the live music I heard that night, fifty years ago. But to my impressionable young ears, it was the best thing, ever. Thank you guys.