I’m reading a remarkable work of scholarship, Strange Brew: Eric Clapton and the British Blues Boom 1965-1970 by Christopher Hjort. It’s a meticulous day-by-day reconstruction of five years in the lives of the artists who rose from obscurity to stardom during the period, not just Clapton but also John Mayall (whose critical role in the boom is often overlooked), Steve Winwood, Fleetwood Mac, the Rolling Stones, Jack Bruce, Manfred Mann, Pete Bardens, and others.
The British scene in the 60s was indeed a bubbling cauldron, with artists sharing tours and stages and studios all up and down the sceptered isle. It’s the unique combinations that capture our imaginations now, nearly 50 years after the fact. People went to their neighborhood clubs to hear various bands with no way of knowing where the people on those stages were going to end up. Clapton, for example, told a biographer that he took a couple of lead vocals with the Stones one night to give sore-throated Mick Jagger a break, long before Clapton was remotely famous. Wouldn’t the audience members have been amazed if they had known?
It’s Sunday, July 18, 1965. The Rolling Stones are riding their early wave of success, although their current American single, “Satisfaction” (which is #1 in the States), has yet to be released in the UK. They have booked a brief three-night stand in the west of England, supported by a number of bands. The main support act is Tommy Quickly and the Remo Four. The Remo Four had been Liverpool’s top act before the Beatles came along. Brian Epstein signed them in 1963 and brought Quickly aboard; their first single together, billed solely to Quickly, was an extremely minor Lennon/McCartney song called “Tip of My Tongue.”
Others on the bill include a band listed as “The Steam Packet, featuring Long John Baldry, Brian Auger, Rod Stewart, and Julie Driscoll.” Newly formed, the band is playing their first live shows this weekend. They will remain on the road almost continuously until September 1966, although Stewart will leave the group in February. An R&B group called the Paramounts formed sometime around 1959 or 1960 when their members were still schoolboys; as such bands will, they frequently changed lineups, although this year their version of “Poison Ivy” has charted, and it got them on TV. A couple of the members, guitarist Robin Trower and singer/pianist Gary Brooker, write songs together. There’s also a girl singer named Twinkle. Her claim to fame is the single “Terry,” which had been banned by the BBC at the end of 1964, and which featured a session musician named Jimmy Page. That lineup played the first two dates, July 16th and 17th, in Exeter and Portsmouth. On the 18th, the venue is the Gaumont Theatre in Bournemouth. John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, which includes John McVie on bass and has recently added Clapton on guitar, join for this night only.
There are two performances at the Gaumont, at 6:45 and 8:45. Top ticket is 12 shillings and sixpence, cheap seats are five shillings. Translating old British money to new and 1965 money to the present isn’t especially easy—as best I can skull it out, that’s equivalent to about $12.50 and $5.50 American today, give or take. The custom at that time is for each opening act to play for maybe 10 or 15 minutes before the headliners take over. So over less than two hours, you’re going to see the Stones, Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, and future members of Procol Harum and Fleetwood Mac, plus Mayall and Auger. (Actually, you’ll nearly miss Clapton. He and Mayall’s drummer, Hughie Flint, rented a boat on that lovely Sunday afternoon and will get to the show late.)
Yup, it’s the combinations that capture our imaginations now. I suspect we’ll be returning to Strange Brew frequently in the weeks to come, since it’s loaded with blog fodder: remarkable photos, reproductions of vintage newspaper and magazine ads, fascinating broadcast and recording data, the sort of stuff that’ll keep a geek such as I entertained for hours and hours.