- 03 Jun 20
There was music aplenty in Magherafelt, at the beginning of the 1960s – and rock ’n’ roll was starting to have an impact too, across Northern Ireland. But falling in love with the big beat did not automatically lead to success in learning to play an instrument. Or, indeed, in the even more basic skill required of teenagers all over the world: that of being able to shake a leg! In some cases, the fact that they couldn't dance wasn’t from want to trying either.
I know it’s going to come as a tremendous shock to many – well, to a few – but the reality is: I can’t dance.
I should have realised it immediately, when I ventured to my first dance back in 1964. It was in Rasharkin in Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland and the band on stage that night was The Driftwoods. I do remember they performed a dramatic version of ‘She Thinks I Still Care’. Now there’s a song with a lyric to produce teardrops:
“Just because I asked a friend about her
Just because I spoke her name somewhere
Just because I rang her number by mistake today
She thinks I still care.”
There’s a film waiting to be made, in those 29 words alone!
In a wee dance hall in Rasharkin, I was introduced to a whole new world of musicians, guitars, saxophones, microphones and the volume-sensitive, magic-eyes of the amplification equipment. It was all there, up close and personal. I have to admit that, during that particular evening, I was so preoccupied witnessing for the first-time music being created live on stage, I completely forgot the whole point of being there.
On the way across to the rural dance hall, my mate Seamus Mitchell had talked me through the whole ritual of what I needed to do. My task, if I chose to accept it, was to blag the last dance from my preferred dance partner, before anyone else had a chance to muscle in and steal my thunder. Sadly, maybe ‘steal my whisper’ would have been more accurate. Even then, when Seamus and his girlfriend spotted that my priorities lay elsewhere, the lady in question persuaded her younger sister, Maureen, to take me on a few circuits of the dance floor.
Maureen very patiently showed me exactly what to do. She demonstrated the slow, slow, quick-quick, slow, foxtrot routine; when my foxtrot wasn’t producing any satisfactory results, she tried the waltz. All the while, she talked me through the steps: right foot forward, left foot to side, right foot close; left foot back, right foot to side and left foot close. It resulted only in the realisation of how intoxicating her perfume was. I came to the conclusion she was the first person I’d met – although I will confess there have been numerous since – who was highly amused by my lack of skill on the dance-floor.
Her final attempt at education proved much more successful when a slow-dance set was announced from the stage. “Put your arms around me,” Maureen said, “hold me close and just walk me slowly around the perimeter of the hall. Please make sure I don’t bump into anyone.”
Now that was much more enjoyable, and I was so relieved to become acquainted with what subsequently became my signature dance-step.
Why was I not able to properly shake a leg? The only excuse I can offer is the era I grew up in. Unlike say the previous generation, I didn’t – I mean we didn’t – have to go to formal dance classes before we were allowed to shuffle onto the ballroom dance floors. No, we didn’t need to perfect the Quick Step, the Waltz or the Foxtrot because they were being very quickly replaced on the dance-floor by people taking the lazier, and yet indisputably more modern, approach of “doing their own thing.”
In our brave new world, you were permitted, encouraged even, to stand with your feet about a foot apart, and your arms arced at the elbows as though you were about to embark on the 100 yard sprint, and just go for it. The new priority apparently was to move in absolutely whatever way you felt like moving. Sometimes even to the degree what was happening on stage, beat wise, had nothing whatsoever to do with what was happening on the sprung boards of the dance-floor.
Everyone could make an attempt at The Twist and it was a hugely infectious sure-fire, floor-filler. There were others just as irresistible such as the Hucklebuck, popularised in Ireland by Brendan Bowyer and the Royal Showband; the Shake; the Mashed Potato; and the Watusi. The best approach to these routines was simply to let-yourself-go, just as if your limbs were the branches of a tree on a very windy day. Your only real marker, as I had been instructed by Seamus Mitchell on my inaugural evening, was how long it took you to shimmy up to your dance partner.
I was very relieved to discover “a dance” meant you were allowed to enjoy the company of your chosen partner for the duration of a three-song dance set. God help you, however, if the three songs in question were ‘Hey Jude’, ‘House of The Rising Sun’,and ‘American Pie’ and your partner cold-shouldered you at the beginning of the first song, rebuffing your well-rehearsed opening line of, ‘Do you come here often?’ and following it up very speedily with a negative to your request for the last dance.
Since I couldn’t dance, I thought it might help me in my quest to make an impression to take up a musical instrument. So, I joined a pipe band. With hindsight, I’m not entirely sure I was motivated by music. No, my school friend, Wesley Kane, encouraged me. Wesley, it has to be said, arrived at school every day as if his mum had rushed out the day before and bought him a brand-new school uniform.
Whilst the rest of us looked like we had already worn out our new school uniforms on the first day, from the tip of his perfectly polished shoes to the peak of his perma-cleaned cap, Wesley was always impeccably turned out. In Wesley’s campaign to recruit me for his pipe band, I think he was doing his best to boost the ranks of teenage pipers in the band. Any reluctance I might have had was very effectively overcome when he “suggested” that Margaret Hutchinson (think of Brigitte Bardot but with a Mid-Ulster accent) was going to be joining during that particular recruitment period.
The Walls’ Corner Boys claimed that Miss Hutchinson – there was no such thing as Ms. back then – was solely responsible for numerous youths colliding into lamp-posts. I’m sure it was true.
My first practice was at the band-room up on the Fair Hill, Magherafelt (don’t go looking for it now: it’s not there). The first thing I discovered was a massive pot of tea constantly on the go. I thought: ‘So far so good'. Wesley suggested that, on a parade day, you’d also get sandwiches, an apple and a Kit Kat thrown in as well. How could I resist?
The Bandmaster was a decent man, a farmer with weather-beaten hands but immaculately clean fingernails. I became fixated with his fingers as they very precisely worked their way around the black wood, practice chanter, so effortlessly producing tunes, I was lulled into believing anyone could play this instrument.
To me, a set of bagpipes was a very deceptive creature. I had always thought you, the piper, had to continuously blow into the mouthpiece to produce music. But then I discovered it wasn’t quite so difficult as that. All you needed to do was to blow until you filled the bag full of air. Then didn’t a wee valve, lodged where the mouthpiece was connected to the bag, shut when you finished blowing. This failsafe system ensured the air – the air produced by your labour, that is – couldn’t come back out through the mouthpiece. In fact, when you used your arm to squeeze the bag, strategically positioned under said arm, the only way for the air to escape was through the drones sticking out of the top of the bag and resting on your shoulder. This was how you produced the music.
I was happy to be advised in fact that you, the piper, didn’t need to blow continuously. No, you could take a wee break every now and then to catch your breath, which in fact you were saving up to… to blow into the bag. I was always good at physics and working out the mechanics of things. Producing music out of objects was a different matter altogether. Unless of course we’re talking about a record player.
That first night at the pipe band practice, where the seasoned pipers practised, we, the new recruits, were introduced to our instruments. Not the bagpipes, mind you, but the practice-chanter. The only other novice I remember was the Bandmaster’s new wife. I took her presence as a good sign, guessing he wouldn’t get too cross with us, if his new wife was also in the class. Wesley figured (more accurately I had to admit) that with all the private tutoring she was going to be enjoying at home she would be leaving the rest of us in her wake by the second or third week of practice.
COMFORTABLE AND NATURAL
Please forgive me for the lack of professional description of the bagpipes, but in my defence, I will state for the record: (a) it was a very long time ago and (b) I kinda lost interest very quickly after Miss Hutchinson’s devastating, early no-show. Yes, sadly, it turned out that the line about the gorgeous Miss Hutchinson turning up with the rest of the novices was a fib, responsible for making my heart flutter in anticipation for several days.
To put the final nail in the coffin of my ambition to learn to play the bagpipes, it soon became clear that my mum made a much better cup of tea anyway.
It was around this time I took a job as a messenger-boy in Dawson Bates’s Grocery & Hardware store. In return for delivering groceries up and down the steep hills of the townlands of Magherafelt, I received thirty bob, or shillings, (£1.50) a week, for duties performed after school each day and all-day Saturday; and fifty bob (£2.50) a week, during school holidays. This financed my meagre lifestyle and the odd album at 32 bob and 6 pence a throw; the more frequent singles at 6 shillings and 8 pence; a pair of black and white hipsters for 24 shillings and – my prize possession – a 10-shilling black polo neck jumper with a thin band of three colours, which ran up the front, off-centre and from waist to shoulder.
I still thought that I should try to master an instrument – one, shall we say, more in tune with the sounds I was listening to. So, thanks to my endeavours delivering Dawson Bates’s groceries, I was able to buy myself an acoustic guitar. It was sold to me by the bass guitarist from the Blueboys: Eddie and The Blueboys that is. It cost me thirty bob and it was a beautiful, dark-wood, Gibson.
Since 1959, when they’d had a number one with ‘Travellin’ Light’, Cliff Richard and The Shadows were a big thing. Like many other teenage boys in the county, I was transfixed by the glorious red Fender Stratocaster brandished by the guitar player with The Shadows, Hank B. Marvin, and I used to get the Burns’ guitar catalogue by the dozen. I even bought a copy of Bert Weedon’s Play in a Day manual.
I wasn’t alone with this purchase, mind you. John & Paul, Mark Knopfler, Eric Clapton, the aforementioned Hank Marvin, Pete Townsend and Val Doonican, plus around two million other hopefuls, also subscribed to gentleman Bert’s miracle musical manual for the masses. I would devotedly sit myself down with the guitar, open Bert’s book at the ‘Bobby Shaftoe’ page, locate a diagram for a simple chord, and duly place the fingers of my left hand on the strings and press them down, as directed, on the fretboard, and strum. And yes, to my surprise, I could hear some music coming from the instrument.
If I had needed to play only that one chord, I would have been okay. I would maybe even have been even good enough, with a lot of practice mind you, to be able to join The Shadows one day. But I had a problem to deal with first. Do you know what it was? My problem – my big problem – was moving from one chord to the next. I would quite literally have to stop mid-strum and use my right hand to place the fingers of my left hand, one by one, in the correct position on the fretboard for the second chord. It was all very tiring!
This ability to smoothly go from one chord to another, unreachable by me, was what really impressed me about another mate of mine, Vince McCusker. Vince was a future song-writing partner in the band we called Fruupp – he wrote the music and I wrote the lyrics. Vince was also a very fine guitarist. His fingers could instinctively find their positions and he could also smoke a cigarette, drink a cup of tea, unwrap and eat a Kit Kat and continue to talk to me as he did so.
The Bandmaster of the pipe band was the same. He could play away and simultaneously teach us all. Vince McCusker’s fingers reminded me of the Bandmaster’s fingers. These musicians were both so comfortable and natural on their chosen instrument. It was priceless to enjoy two vastly different creators of music, while their hands performed a kind of magic. Their fingers would just go to their places and each and every note sparkled with crisp exactness. By comparison, my attempts were hopelessly laboured. I knew pretty quickly I wasn’t going to make the grade, and so, reluctantly, I fell by the wayside.
For all my lack of success in mastering a musical instrument, I must admit I wasn’t deterred. While Vince McCusker and I were at the Tech college we formed a wee group for the annual Christmas concert, called Goggles Anonymous. It was around the time Hedgehoppers Anonymous were enjoying their one and only flush of success with the hit single, ‘It’s Good News Week’. Goggles Anonymous (we were all bespectacled) performed ‘Sloop John B.’ on the night of the concert. Thankfully I wasn’t a performing member of the band, but I do remember in rehearsals suggesting to the lead singer that a clothes peg might assist him in reaching the high notes.
Now, let’s get back to the undeniable fact that I can’t dance. Some say my embarrassing lack of dance moves was the reason I waited so long before I married. But I can tell you such claims are pure fiction, because the truth of the matter is, quite simply, that I was waiting to meet Catherine.
I often wonder if the farmer who was my pipe band tutor and Vince McCusker hadn’t been so brilliant on their chosen instrument, would I have persevered a bit longer. I figured, if I had, I might also have developed a couple of successful dance moves of my own.
For instance, maybe I would have mastered swaggering on the spot the way pipers in a marching band do, when they remain stationary, marking time, to the beat of the big drum, while playing their pipes.
Or, if I’d learned to play the guitar successfully, I could have picked up the Shadows’ trademark synchronised three-step-moves. I was convinced even the ultra-cool Miss Hutchinson would have been impressed by either of those moves. Perhaps, perhaps not. I mean, there was always the possibility I could even have swept her off her feet. Alas if I had, I fear it might have been more to do with my two left feet tripping her up than her being blown away by my attempts to predict the future moves of John Travolta.
Talking about the guitar and letting Bert Weedon down, I’ve recently taken comfort in the fact that there was at least one other person, apart from myself, in Bert’s two million followers who didn’t succeed…
Quick roll of the snare drum – and let’s hear it for Mr. Phil Collins.
And guess what? As testified in the Genesis song, and proven in the accompanying video, Phil Collins can’t dance either!
So I don’t feel so bad about the fact that – as is the case with Phil, Tony and Mike – I can’t dance. I really can’t.
I can’t sing. I can’t talk. But you should see the way I walk.