Highland Archives

Northlands Rock: Part Six - 1968-A Year In The Life

 

Around the time that Billy J. Kramer's roadcrew were packing their kit and preparing to quit Wick after their 1965 Assembly Rooms gig, half a world away Bruce Bartow arrived in San Francisco. He had hiked and hoboed across the United States from New England, to find himself in at the dawn of a radical new youth movement. Down in the city's Haight Ashbury district a bunch of serious young freaks were struggling to articulate a philosophy based on Love, Peace and the universal fellowship of humankind. Long hair, ethnic clothes, flowers, poetry, free'n'easy physical relationships and chemically affected states of consciousness; these were the motors powering this new utopia. On ground dug by a generation of Beat poets and novelists, and fertilised by maverick intellectuals like Timothy Leary, love-rock bands such as The Seeds and The Charlatans took root and bloomed. Heady days, this first flush of Hippiedom when all things seemed possible to minds made multi-dimensional by LSD. Just as Bruce, who was aaa a musical youth, surrendered to these new truths, reality barged in on his daydream.

The Viet Nam war was going full blast. Bruce Bartow's name appeared in the draft of young men eligible for military service. Napalm, Agent Orange and Gook shoots dovetailing not at all with Bruce's newly acquired doctrines of Love and Peace, he did the honourable thing and absconded from San Francisco. He was soon caught. Given the choice between jail and a uniform he opted for the US Navy. Shipped out to Vietnam to serve on a river patrol vessel he was hospitalised by an exploding mine. Health restored he requested a move to a more peaceful billet. The Navy's Radio Station at Forss, by Thurso fitted the bill just fine, and Bruce soon shacked up with the relaxed Caithness life-style.

Boxing Day 1967 and 500 ravers packed Thurso Town Hall for the county's first ever Beat Concert, a danceless music show featuring the cream of local groups. Talented trio Uncle Fester's Nighthouse were there; so too were Zebidie's Morgue, average age 15; and The Opium Trail, whose new vocalist Monica Rogers belted out organ-backed soul numbers like Gimme Little Sign. From Wick came Floral Decade, an all-girl band, newly formed. In addition to music there was a display of psychedelic posters from a competition won by Thurso's Angela Campbell.

Topping the bill were Edinburgh's only professional beat group, Just Us, whose lightnin' flash lead guitarist, old Thursonian Stefan Kocemba, demonstrated complete mastery of controlled feedback, a technique then very much in vogue. On bass was Werner Frolich, a guitarist Just Us had filched from Second Chance, the group Johnny Sutherland had brought with him from Switzerland. Despite the fact that the singer had 'flu and the rhythm guitarist was playing his instument with a violin bow, Just Us proved themselves a cut above the local groups, good as they were. Having just passed an EMI recording test, their bags packed with Stefan Kocember penned songs, Just Us were due to go off on a tour of Vietnam for the heady fee of E80 per day - each.

Cue ex-Vietnam hand Bruce Bartow. Given Bruce's musical abilities, his Haight Ashbury experience and his collection of West Coast love-rock albums, it was unsurprising that he and Johnny Sutherland should become firm aquaintances. And here they were, playing a set of acoustic blues and folk songs to a Town Hall crowd, who probably didn't realise they were listening to the product of only two days practise.

With good local groups, a genuine American musical Hippy come amongst them, and a sympathetic advocate in Bill Mowat, Caithness Courier editor and author of that paper's weekly Tim Hunt music column, Caithness beat music enthusiasts had good reason for optimism. When they heard that Johnny Sutherland was not only staying on in his native county, but was picking up lead guitar with Zebide's Morgue, their spirits soared. Meanwhile, out at Halkirk a beat group with no name started earnest rehearsals.

He'll have to go sang Jim Reeves. It was a sentiment shared by the leader of The Jimmy Hamilton Sound who was out of tune with a fair portion of what his group were playing every Saturday night. Jimmy Hamilton was a jazz enthusiast; he didn't care for country music or smaltzy pop ala Englebert Humperdink. He was not a lone dissenter. Jim Wilson preferred folk blues to the hot soul The Opium Trail were currently serving up in response to popular demand. These were the brass-driven dance number days of Gene Washington and The Ram Jam Band, whose disciples The Powerhouse with T.D. Backus, and Delroy Williams and The Sugar Band played Caithness in '68. Delroy Williams was the first black artist to appear in the Far North since Kenny Lynch five years earlier. A one hundred and ten percent showman, Delroy's band came complete with a pair of highly pneumatic Go-Go dancers who raised a few pulses. But not Jim Wilson's. He left The Opium Trail around the same time as Jimmy Hamilton parted company with his group.... . Minus their leader, The Jimmy Hamilton Sound became The Coasters. Jimmy Hamilton? He took Jim Wilson's place in The Opium Trail.

Wick, too, played musical chairs when teenbands The Suspense and The Autocrats disbanded, to reform as The City Crescent Five. Singer Neil Murray, Tommy Cass on lead guitar, Andy Mackay on organ, accordianist John Lowe and drummer David Brown embraced a something-for-everyone repertoire of beat, Scottish and country 'n' western. This was commercial common sense given the musical tastes of the paying customers they would be entertaining. But once again, the personal preferences of certain group members who did not want to play country or low grade pop music, led to an early exit for The City Crescent Five.

A group taking the opposite view was Zebidie's Morgue who, under the wing of Johnny Sutherland, extended their menu to include Indian-style rhythms such as Johnny's own composition, Wanda's Raga, and bottleneck blues like Elmore James's classic Dust My Blues. Another group whose future outlook involved backward glances were Wick's Casuals, who resurrected Buddy Holly's Oh Boy from the rock 'n' roll vaults. The Casuals also began featuring West Coast rock music in their act.

Earlier in the year, inspired by the success of the Boxing Day Beat Concert and egged on by the contagious enthusiasm of journalist Bill Mowat, Thurso Town Hall hosted a San Franciscan evening. About 50 fans turned out for this listen-in, where Bruce Bartow, Thurso's Hippy in residence, gave a lecture on love-rock illustrated with musical cameos from his own album collection. Eager young ears heard for the first time the music of The Grateful Dead, Moby Grape, The Doors, Country Joe and The Fish and, Bruce's favourites, Buffalo Springfield. No doubt the speaker gave an authoritive overview of the amoral philosophy underpinning the San Francisco Hippy scene; doubtless, too, he touched on the subject of narcotics, the use of which was openly advocated by many Californian groups. Whatever, the sound of Jim Morrison, Grace Slick and Janis Joplin must have seemed light years removed from the dated noises still being churned out by groups like The Jacobeats. Known as the Freddie & The Dreamers of the North, ttt the kilted Jacobeats had recently played Wick's Assembly Rooms with Zebidie's Morgue, whose up to the minute awareness made The Jacobeats look like yesterday's men.

Elsewhere on the main stage, major names were experiencing similar discords between those content to carry on in the tried and tested style, and the progressive minority restless to explore untrodden byways of music and other things. Tensions of this nature led to the break up of The Yardbirds, The Animals, the Mamas & The Papas, and Cream, and the departure of members from The Hollies, The Byrds and Pink Floyd. Internal relations within The Beatles were strained by George Harrison's obsession with things Indian, which saw him fingering a sitar as often as a guitar, then involved the rest of the group, plus partners, in a time-wasting visit to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, whose transcendental meditations had materialised for him a fleet of Rolls Royce cars. A while later, John Lennon dumped his wife for Yoke One, an artist of debatable talent.

Despite all this prima donna tom foolery, the record companies were inclined to indulge the antics of their wayward stars. After all, there was no such thing as totally profitless publicity, even when it involved major figures like Jimi Hendrix and Brian Jones being caught in possession of illegal substances. Only Motown came down heavy shoes, booting out David Ruffin for trying to change The Temptations musical direction.

For serious music fans, the progressive was the ascendent tendency. The opportunities of flirting with Third World rhythms, improvising lengthy instumental solos and pushing back the frontiers of creative guitar playing, were attractive indeed to intelligent young musicians who considered their abilities to have been too long undervalued by an unsympathetic, profit-obsessed music industry. The revelation that some well known names had not even played so much as one note on their chart hits, was seized upon as certain proof that rock needed to dance to a different tune. When it came, that tune was Bubblegum music - put your hands in the air if you remember Simon Says? - which was based not on sessionmen or up-front musicians, but on cartoon characters.

What the dedicated musical youth forgot is that as well as stars and music companies, there exists a third component vital to the rock bit - Joe public. When the singer with a group of musical incompetents called The Motion, appeared on the Assembly Rooms stage with his shirt undone to the waist, then proceeded to remove his shoes and socks while his colleagues murdered Robert Parker's Barefootin: the critical elite in the audience shook their hairy heads. The out-for-a-good-time majority laughed. To them such innane behaviour was simply hilarious. They had come to be entertained, not enlightened.

Likewise, progressives could not understand why golden greats The Searchers played nothing but their old hits when they came to a packed Assembly Rooms. Nor could they fathom why the crowd lapped it up. What did they expect? The Searchers were hardly The Mothers of Invention. But The Searchers are still touring, still pulling in punters happy to hear Needles and ~Pins and Don't Throw Your Love Away for the umpteenth plus time.

One evening at John O' Greats, 'Tich' Bremner, Billy MacPhee, David Henderson and Rocky Marshall made their musical debut alongside Zebidie's Morgue. The boys with no name from Halkirk were henceforth to be known as Fingal McCool. This new group's appearance was a timely one with Caithness audiences, who were getting a mite tired of seeing the same faces in the same places, playing the same songs. The faces, too, needed new places to play their songs. The Golden Road Show began packing its caravan.

Soul-crazy Dingwall had next to no knowledge of West Coast music. When Uncle Fester's Nighthouse, Zebidie's Morgue, together with Bruce Bartow, the divine Monica Rogers, a psychedelic light show, and grown in Caithness Go-Go girls hit town, normal life in the Ross-shire capital was suspended. The Golden Road Show, compered by Bill Mowat, socked it to them with a barrage of songs drawn from the armories of Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Moby Grape, The Mothers of Invention and Bob Dylan. Johnny Sutherland played some of his own eastern-influenced instrumentals; Monica sang Fever, particularly apt given that the song's composer, Little Willie John, had just died in the American penitentiary where he'd been banged up for manslaughter. Next day, following a night spent in their two transit vans, The Roadshow appeared at Embo by Dornoch, where girls screamed at singer Alisdair Wordie. Screaming was then passe in elevated circles; nevertheless, as events were to demonstrate, the Caithness lasses still had a few yells left in them.

Archetypal snarl band The Troggs had once been described as musically so far behind they were out in front. Now the authors of such subtle ditties as Wild Thing and Give It To Me were booked for the Assembly Rooms. The Troggs hits were past history, their current form unknown. A song entitled Love Is AII Around had hinted at an unsuspected gentleness, but when the Troggs got going in front of a disappointingly sparse Wick audience, no-one doubted that they were watching a bunch of loud, rural English roughs. I Can't Control Myself snarled Reg Presley; the girls couldn't either as they succeeded in tearing Reg's jacket in two. Not content with this trophy, a posse of hysterical females seized the Troggs lead guitarist and tried to pull him from the stage. Stewards dashed to his rescue, and an undignified tug-of-war began. To his credit, despite the real threat of being torn asunder, the guitarman kept right on playing until the stewards secured his person. Those who'd seen the psychedelic light were beee ewildered. Whatever possessed girls to scream themselves silly over these crude dinosaurs?

The week following The Troggs concert marked the final vacation time appearance of Gale Force Eight, a soul band with a powerful brass-based sound and a lively stage act. Formed when lan and Donnie Sinclair came home from university for the summer holidays, the other six members of Gale Force Eight were Roger Niven, Graham Walker, Duncan Gray, Jimmy Hamilton, Will Murray and Dennis Thomson. The availability of all these seasoned players was due to the break up of The Opium Trail and Uncle Fester's Nighthouse. Being Caithness, lifeboats awaited survivors of these musical shipwrecks.

This was a year when supergroups were being formed and disbanded throughout the rock world, Caithness not excepted. In May four young musicians walked into Jimmy Johnstone's Grampian recording studio in Wick, and laid down a few tracks including Fever, the Miracles old classic, Shop Around, and Cream's Sunshine of Your Love. These recordings never saw the light of day; however, those responsible had confidence enough to take the risk of turning professional. The group were assembled from what guitarist Johnny Sutherland considered to be the cream of local musical talent. He chose singer Monica Rogers, bass guitarist Dick Levens and drummer Andy Munro to join him in The Blend. The defection of two of its three members not unexpectedly led to the collapse of Uncle Fester's Nighthouse, whose lead guitarist, Billy Moore, filled the Zebidie's Morgue berth left vacant by Johnny Sutherland's departure.

The end years of the sixties were the heyday of those giant rock festivals at which tens of thousands sprawled among fields and public parks, scorched by the summer sun, saturated with rain or made miserable by mud. In stoned silence they listened to the megaloud sounds of star turns like Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin, the group Jimmy Page had formed from the defunct Yardbirds. Music al fresco is a difficult thing to bring off, but with the aid of high wattage PA systems, a common bond of shared ideals, and a willingness to ignore such inconveniences as 'do it on the spot' sanitation and pestersome drug pedlars these early festivals did not so bad. They had atmosphere; they were where it was at - and if you weren't there, then you were nowhere.

Thurso was not Monterey or Hyde Park, but it too hosted a festival. In June the stars of The Golden Road Show were joined by Orcadians, The Glass Opera, and Glasgow's Bo-Weevils, who delivered solid versions of Eight Miles High and Moby Grape's Hey, Grandma. But good groups and Go-Go girls failed to fill a rain-lashed tent on Viewfirth Green, with poor acoustics and all the atmosphere of a vacuum. Thurso's Festival was a forgettable affair, not one half as good as the original Golden Road Show tour.

Midsummer came and went and The Blend played at Thurso Scout Hall. It was the group's last local show before going on tour in Germany. Prior to their departure The Blend joined their Caithness musical cousins at Wick's Grampian studios, where a recording session had been arranged and part financed by Fingal McCool's manager, Jim Marshall. State of Flux was an apt description of the constant interchange of members between Caithness rock groups in 1968; it was also the chosen title of a 7 inch mini-album.

Packaged in a sleeve designed by Angela Campbell, State of Flux contained six songs, four of which sprang from the musical imaginations of the local groups who played them. David Henderson wrote Fingal McCool's You Just Gotta Try, while fellow McCoolman Rocky Marshall took the credit for the group's Looking Through Hell's Windows. As well as playing rhythm guitar with Zebidie's Morgue on their version of Dust My Blues, Johnny Sutherland also wrote Nothing, the Morgue's other State of Flux track. Reformed especially for the session, Uncle Fester's Nighthouse recorded Andy Munro's song Ice Cold Woman Blues, while The Blend's parting shot to Caithness was a version of a number they'd previously laid down at Grampian, The Miracles Shop Around. State of Flux is a musical memento of 1968, a passport into those now long gone days, when a vigorous Youth movement thought it was at last about to open the cold, grey eyes of the staid adult world. Didn't Tony Blair once play in a band?

Discotheque injected a little psychedelic light into a Caithness scene overcast by the break up or departure of some its best rock bands, and the failure of those remaining to secure a decent number of bookings. Blame for this last complaint was directed at the alleged monopolistic policy of promoting second rate groups from beyond the Ord over known local talent. Whatever the truth of these accusations, the whole world of rock was suffering from too many signposts pointing nowhere, combined with a surfeit of ideas comprehensible to none but the brains that hatched them. In a changing art form like rock music, today's tastiest cakes are often tomorrow's stale birdfood.

Products of urban cool, discotheques grew up in sepulchral clubs, never penetrated by live music, where zombie-like clubbers, their eyes kept open by amphetemine props, danced the night away to obscure soul records. The first Caithness discotheque seems to have been the one opened in April 1967 at Wick's Bridge Street Youth Club, in a subterranean musical dungeon with rough stone walls, dimly illuminated by subdued lighting. Thurso Council having thrown out an application to convert a disused barn at Ormlie farm into a disco, it was left for Viewfirth to supply the deficiency. The Club's first disco evening was a poor excuse, lacking atmosphere, a reincarnation of an old youth club record hop with its tabletop Dansette record player. Enter 'Professor' David Humphries and his lightshow. In the twinkle of a psychedelic kalidoscope everything changed; disco night at Viewfirth became a must for happening people.

As the year wore itself out, Zebidie's Morgue disbanded, its members disheartened by their lack of local dates. What was the point of practising for events that might never materialise? In November, a month after the Morgue called it a day, the prodigal son returned to Caithness. Johnny Sutherland and company were back from the Continent. Pathologically unable to remain musically inactive, Johnny lost no time in picking drummer Graham Walker and bassist Johnny Gray, and bottling The Jam, a rock 'n' roll conserve flavoured with a blend of Vanilla Fudge, The Nice, and assorted Californian bands.

Suddenly, live music in Caithness leapt back from the brink of apathy. Following The Jam's debut at Thurso Scout Hall, a crowd of 600 filed through the Assembly Room's doors to hear Glasgow visitors The Riot Squad, supported by Golspie group Yesterday's Mood and The Jam, in a late night marathon staged by Caithness Dance Promotions. There were Go-Go girls, and Prof. Humphries' light show, with added smoke effects. Nothing was spared in this attempt to recreate the atmosphere of San Francisco's Fillmore Auditorium.

With December came rumours that the BBC were contemplating a film featuring the groups who'd recorded State of Flux. Things were clearly on the up. Boxing Day witnessed a repeat of the previous year's Beat Group Concert, with The Probe from Inverness headlining local bands Fingal McCool and The Blend. With the Sinclair brothers on parole from university, Gale Force Eight blew once again through Thurso Town Hall; and Uncle Fester's Nighthouse was rebuilt for this one show. Very much a case of Deja Vu, a feeling hope has been conveyed to readers by this series of articles, of which this is the final one for the time being.

The above owes much to the musical memories of Johnny Sutherland, lan Sinclair and Alisdair Wordie, not forgetting Tim Hunt's Caithness Courier music column.

 

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Steven Cashmore 1998 


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