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Friars website introductions

 

Kris Needs

Original Friars member, author, journalist, legend
 

When a building you love is getting knocked down the initial reaction to its  replacement can only be fairly hostile. Such was the case when, as a reporter on the local Bucks Advertiser, I was invited to a sneak preview of the long-awaited new Aylesbury Civic Centre sometime in summer 1975. Of course, I feigned interest in how it would benefit the local community etc, but the uppermost thought in my brain was how Friars might settle in here.

          It looked promising though: big enough to hold around 1200 people with all mod cons as opposed to the BAH’s primitive facilities. The vibe would be all important; if that could be transported from the Ex-Servicemen’s Club to the BAH with such success than this should be a doddle. And it was, although it soon became obvious that this was one hall which greatly benefited from a proliferation of punters as far as atmosphere was concerned. Music-wise it would not matter if your worst nightmare was on as there was a large, comfy bar!

          It felt good to be doing Friars flyers again. On September 13, 1975, Friars returned with a bill topped by Greenslade, fronted by the voluminous organ of ex-Colosseum keyboards-man Dave Greenslade. The first band to actually appear at Phase Three were Warren Harry and the Yum Yum Band, then regulars on the pub scene with their snappy pop. Warren always performed like he was onstage at Hammersmith Odeon and certainly boasted the star attitude. A lovely bloke and it was so sad when he died in 2008.

          Also on the bill were me and Otway, back together again that year playing the same songs [which he still does now!]. The chicken impersonation was fun. Definitely one of those nights where the event overshadowed the groups! However, the following week saw the FA debut of the new MOTT, our fave band minus Hunter but plus two new guys. They went down a storm at a time when some raucous, slightly eccentric rock ‘n’ roll was much appreciated amidst all the excessive noodling going on. And it felt good to be scribing the name MOTT on a flyer again.

          One of the differences between this Friars incarnation and the previous ones was that Aylesbury’s night-life at that time wasn’t just confined to a couple of pubs populated by the hardcore caners. Since the closure of Phase Two, something of a scene had sprung up around Thursday nights at the Bell Hotel which would swell through the following year into the Aylesbury Rock Explosion. Everyone got on well, bands were forming and soon there would be more venues. A lot of good-natured drunken socialising went on in that Civic Centre bar while bands like Tangerine Dream, Stackridge, Sailor and Camel enraptured their hordes in the hall. 

          Two particular 1975 nights stand out, both in November: Dr Feelgood, who’d just released their Malpractice album and were now like a barely controlled explosion having honed their onstage personas into one deadly unit, like all the best groups. Best of all in those often-flossy times, you wouldn’t want to meet man-in-black psycho-guitarist Wilko Johnson or clenched-teeth hoodlum singer Lee Brilleaux in a dark alley. Punk had already started.

The other was Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band. I’d been a massive fan ever since hearing the man on John Peel in 1967, captivated by Beefheart’s elemental blues roar, surreal lyrics and the extra-terrestrial syncopation of the Magic Band. They churned through a selection of ‘greatest hits’ careering between their Safe As Milk debut album, the astonishing Trout Mask Replica and a nifty tap-dance by John ‘Drumbo’ French, one of the original Magic Band members. It was amazing to see Beefheart on the Friars Aylesbury stage, one of music’s most fascinating legends [whose dark tale I would uncover when I got to know Drumbo in 2008 but in 1975 this was unbelievable].

After the show several of us noticed the walrus-‘tached figure of Captain Beefheart seated at the side of the hall, receiving his often-gibbering fans, sketchbook on his knee in which he constantly scribbled and drew. He was charming, friendly and appreciative of the compliments, even drawing me a flock of birds and handing it over [although he kept the portrait he did of Colin]. The only bummer was that I’d been away at journalists’ college for two months so had handed over doing the flyers to Budget Stopps!

Musically, early 1976 was pretty barren in the mainstream. Something was definitely needed to liven things up there, but Aylesbury continued to bask in its own scene with gigs now happening at the John Hampden pub. Every lunchtime a small gaggle would sit in the Civic Centre bar and plot to take over the world. Pete Frame appeared in July with the first issue of The Aylesbury Roxette, which he had designed to make out to the world that the town was a cultural epicentre, thus stoking the scene [with an essential dose of irreverent humour]. Pete would later hand the mag over to me and Colin with Chris France as advertising manager and Geoffrey Tyrell supplying a steady stream of gorgeous photos from whoever was visiting Friars. We’d lay it out after hours at the Bucks Advertiser offices in late night cowgum-and-beer sessions. Even when I wasn’t always doing the Friars flyers I still got to do my own version on the back of the mag.

As Otway had done his usual sneaky one where he suddenly started playing with other people without telling me, Pete decided to form me a band with Colin on guitar and sundry other local musos which he called the Aylesbury Bucks before we’d even done a gig. We’d rehearse at his country cottage in North Marston, charging through tracks from his extensive collection of 60s garage punk by names like the Seeds, Strangeloves and Standells, then play the Hampden and Leighton Buzzard’s Tiddenfoot Leisure Centre [making the cover of the Roxette!].          

As 1976 progressed I was becoming aware that something was stirring in London. Magenta DeVine, the Roxette’s gossip columnist named by Frame, had been going on about this group called the Sex Pistols while I’d been fervently following this new phenomenon called punk rock in the music press. After Pete started me writing me for Zigzag I began interviewing several of the prime movers, including the Stranglers and Ramones. My first major interview was with the fabulous Flamin’ Groovies from San Francisco, then belting out their own take on primal rock ‘n’ roll and widescreen classic pop filtered through early Beatles and Stones but credited with being punk godfathers as they’d been playing with flash and attitude since the mid-60s. I struck up a great relationship with this bunch of amiable loonies and started badgering David to book them at Friars, which happened in November. Then, after Chris France booked The Clash to play Leighton Buzzard’s Tiddenfoot Leisure Centre it’s safe to say I was never the same again. Apart from being the most exciting rock ‘n’ roll band I had ever seen, this was the future. I started hanging out with them and going to every gig I could. Obviously the prospect of this group at Friars became a top priority.

Meanwhile, a bunch of Essex rockers called Eddie and the Hot Rods were gaining quite a local following playing the pubs before their Friars debut in October: more of a high-energy rock band like Dr Feelgood but paving the way for guitars and an absence of two-hour synth solos. The Groovies came in November and were spectacular, a true Friars band if ever there was one.

1977 was the year when everything changed. Every day seemed to bring a fresh development as the most exciting musical revolution for years turned everything upside down. Friars’ started dipping its toe into the punk cauldron in March when the movement’s supreme godfather Iggy Pop appeared for the opening date on his tour promoting his comeback album The Idiot.

The exciting twist was that the album had been produced by our old mate David Bowie, who was on the tour playing keyboards. ‘I said I’d be back!’ joked a relaxed-looking Bowie as he hung around the hall waiting to soundcheck. He was obviously happy to be in Aylesbury again but maintained a distinctly low profile all night, not wanting to impinge on Iggy’s night. The gig was attended by a horde of London punk luminaries who I’d met at gigs, including Johnny Thunders [diligently checking out the toilets!], the Heartbreakers, Generation X, a couple of Pistols etc. The gig has since gone down in history as Iggy’s Bowie-driven comeback, low-key but riveting.

The ball was rolling now and the rest of the year saw the Ramones, the mighty Motorhead, Blondie, Mink DeVille, Talking Heads, The Jam and Ian Hunter, another punk godfather here for the eighth birthday bash, storm the hall in their own unique way. Take the Ramones, who made their first appearance prompted by a petition circulated by Colin Keinch. Lovely, hysterically-funny characters who remain the masters of the non-stop punk rock barrage. Mink DeVille were a total contrast but still a quintessential New York band, evoking classic 60s street soul fronted by the smooth Willy DeVille. One of the best Friars nights ever as the club showed why it could be so special: the crowd had this ability to plug into what an act were doing, even if they weren’t fans, soak it in then roar back their appreciation, spurring the group on to greater heights. Still with the Big Apple, Blondie needed no introduction and played one of their first major gigs in their own right to a crowd stoked by their perfect pop celebration and Debbie’s charisma, tonight heightened by black see-through blouse and leather trousers.  

The Motorhead gig in August marked the start of another beautiful friendship as I did my common routine of interviewing the band for Zigzag, which I was now editing, while reviewing the set. It was the first time I’d met the legendary Lemmy, who greeted all and sundry with a bag of battery-acid speed and a flick-knife, barking the command, ‘Do it till it hurts!’. Definitely one of the most gloriously loud, dirty and uproarious bands to ever grace the club, which they would return to several times. Lemmy always made a beeline for the fruit machine for the Green Man pub next door, whose world-revered jukebox was often dominated by Motorhead. [The pub was like a Friars satellite, the jukebox chart reflecting who’d been appearing]. In 1979 I got Motorhead to put on Father Christmas outfits for the cover of the Christmas Zigzag, the photo also ending up adorning of the ‘Ace Of Spades’ single.  

After its 1977 supernova, punk was now part of the musical mainstream and reflected in the Friars gig-list with bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees, Buzzcocks, Lurkers, Jam, Stiff Little Fingers, 999 and Adverts, supported by the new band me and Colin had formed called the Vice Creems. We played local gigs like the Britannia but, after our first single, the rhythm section’s girlfriends started lowering the thumb and, on the eve of recording the second 45, the group stood as just me and Colin with Olympic Studios already booked. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll get you a band’, said Clash guitarist Mick Jones, which turned out to be himself, drummer Topper Headon and Tony James from Generation X on bass.

The long-awaited Clash gig finally happened in June, 1978, an incendiary affair coinciding with the release of their second album Give ‘Em Enough Rope. Although one of the most passionately-received gigs in Friars history, it went without much fuss and they returned in December then January 1980, doing a secret warm-up for the 16 Tons tour with Ian Dury also on the bill. The Vice Creems supported at very short notice, finding a new rhythm section in three days. I could spend a whole book going on about The Clash - and have! Suffice to say, they’re up there in the very best gigs seen at Friars.

Siouxsie and the Banshees were the other group I always seemed to be on the road with, massively popular at Friars, but this period now seems to melt into a succession of brilliant, often surreal events and images, like walking across the Market Square with Chrissie Hynde, past the queue for the Pretenders gig and into their luxury tour bus parked by the Market Square phone box. Then there was the incredible Kid Creole and the Coconuts show in June 1982, on the tour accompanying their Tropical Gangsters album’s UK breakthrough. One of my personal favourites as what looked like a Broadway show hit the Friars stage, fronted by the zoot-suited Kid, comic foil Coati Mundi in his sailors’ outfit and the exotic Coconuts in their jungle gear, backed up by the most ferocious funk machine. Like Mink DeVille, it was another of those nights where the hall’s orbit seemed to shift onto some delirious plateau where time stood still and the world outside really didn’t matter. It was rare to find that anywhere else in the country and, believe me, I did enough touring during those years. The sheer diversity of artists appearing – from Kid Creole to the roots reggae of Clint Eastwood & General Saint and Dennis Brown, the cream of punk to the Kinks, could not be beat either.

By 1982 I had to moved to London and missed several gigs which, as the club prided itself on mirroring the times, involved a fair number of vacuous 80s names who were fun at the time but are now all-but-forgotten. It’s almost taboo to mention his name now but, it has to be said that some of the most unadulteratedly silly nights came courtesy of Gary Glitter, although PiL and Grandmaster Flash were good, even if I can’t remember them!

When Friars closed it was as hard to believe then that it had been going for 15 years as it is now to take on board the fact that the first night was 40 years ago. Friars nights were often special, often coming through against all odds. Even if Phase Three now saw David Stopps dealing with mainstream instead of underground, he still managed to imbue it with that original spirit, crucially aided by the Civic’s John Braley, Robin Pike and others hopefully listed elsewhere. Just take a look at these pages if you don’t believe me!

  Dedicated to the memories of Joe Strummer, Johnny, Joey and Dee Dee Ramone.       

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