John Hellier Half A Century And Counting My Life In Music


John Hellier (Nov 2021)

THE MUSIC: Born in 1949 and a teenager in the swinging sixties. Good timing eh? Music has always been prominent in my life. At the age of 7 (in 1956) I can distinctly remember Skiffle music, Teddy Boys and early Elvis records amongst other Rock n Roll music. The drum break in ‘Hound Dog’ astounded me as a nipper (and still does). I was drawn to drums even back then and also remember being mesmerised by that great snare/cymbals sound of Little Richard’s ‘Keep a Knocking.’ All of the original Mods back in the day were brought up on a diet of American Rock n Roll, long before they discovered Booker T and The MGs. Don’t believe everything you saw in Quadrophenia! My parents bought and played a lot of music on our multi-player Bush record player. My dad had amazing taste in music although I didn’t fully appreciate that at the time, I remember him playing people like Ray Charles, BB King and Fats Domino. That was my birthing into the world of music but by the time I was buying records myself, with my own pocket money, I was into (almost) anything American. The first 45 I bought was ‘He’s A Rebel’ by The Crystals and that (and everything else the Phil Spector ‘Wall Of Sound’ produced) still sounds as good today as it did half a century ago. My very first album was ‘Hey Bo Diddley’ on the red and yellow Pye International label, I think that was in 1963 and I still own it today and it’s still in mint condition. I’ve NEVER ever touched the black area of a record; I always treat them with utmost respect. As I said it was always the American original for me, even the early Beatles and Stones albums were peppered with US covers and I’d listen to them and then check the originals out which wasn’t very easy back then in pre-Google times. While everybody was digging the Beatles ‘Twist and Shout’ and ‘Money’ I’d be listening to the Isley Brothers/Top Notes and Barrett Strong versions and so on and so on. By late ‘64/early ’65 I’d changed my mind and finally started digging our home grown talent, initially it was bands such as The Pretty Things, Yardbirds, Animals and The Who, then I discovered The Small Faces. They had me hooked on the image from the first time I ever saw a picture of them. They sounded great, of course, but with them it was so much more than that. I’d buy all the girlie mags of the day, Rave, Fab 208 etc. etc. just for the photos and then I’d shoot up to Carnaby Street or wherever and try to buy a shirt just like Steve or Ronnie were wearing. The image was one of Mod perfection for me and I still get a buzz nowadays if I find a picture of them that I haven’t seen before (as does Mr. Weller). One day in early ‘66 I spotted Steve in London on a very crowded street. I followed him without making it at all obvious. He went into the HMV megastore near Bond Street and spent ages in there looking through the album racks. I went into one of the listening booths and just watched him. I was very young and in awe! I was very into style and in early ‘66 Steve had that in abundance. The thing that struck me most about his impressive appearance was his hair which was cut and combed to perfection, obviously a fair bit of hairspray as there wasn’t one single strand out of place. I got to know Steve some 20 years after that and told him of that day. He seemed genuinely embarrassed about how he looked and I’ve never understood why. I saw The Small Faces more times than I heard them! Club gigs were fantastic it was just like East Ham meets Memphis but Pop package tours of the day would be different completely. They’d be in a cinema or theatre and they’d do about 20 minutes worth of hit singles. It was Beatlemania all over again……didn’t hear a word!

THE CLOBBER: The phrase ‘Mod for life’ was a saying probably coined by the Quadrophenia generation. In truth, to most original 60s Mods it was just a trend, a passing fad, the fashion of the day. Times were so different. Back in ’63, a year before I left school, we never looked any further than the next weekend. In those formative years you didn’t even think of particular clothes or music as being Mod it was just of the day. The mainstream Mods and Rockers rivalry started with the tabloids and ‘the fighting on the beaches’ story in 1964. Myself and my mates were very proud to be called Mods by then but we would disassociate ourselves with the street level guys on scooters that were just out for a punch up. We saw ourselves as a bit above that. Yeah, we were snobs! We were peacocks that wouldn’t contemplate messing our clothes up or indeed the hair by even kicking a tin can in the street let alone fighting on the beaches of wherever. I wouldn’t even sit down in an empty railway carriage for fear of messing the crease in my trousers! Now that’s what I call vain. Clothes-wise, early on it was all about being suited and booted, tonic mohair being preferable. I had very little money but I had a very good local tailor that accepted tick, by that I mean you’d order a suit, pay no deposit, just go into the shop every week and pay a certain amount off of the cost. The suit could well be worn out long before you’d fully paid for it! By ’66 it was largely smart casual with Fred Perry (type) shirts being popular with white Levi’s and baseball boots. It wasn’t all about names though as it seems to be nowadays. You’d be pretty happy to buy a Fred Perry (type) shirt from your local High Street, it wasn’t considered essential to have the label. As Steve Marriott famously told Nicky Horne in a 1985 interview when asked “How did success change you?” He replied “Well, I stopped going to Woolworths and went to British Home Stores instead!” By 1967 attire was a lot more flamboyant with silk neckerchiefs and satin shirts the choice of the day.

THE CLUBS: I lived in the Hornchurch/Romford area which was in Essex back then; it’s now the London Borough of Havering. We bordered onto the East End of London so even before I started venturing up west there was never a shortage of really good live music events to attend. In my own manor we had some marvellous local venues and some of those became Mod Mecca’s by the mid 1960s. Places such as the Wykeham Hall, Nimbus, Willow Rooms, Lotus Rooms and Ilford Palais would attract scooter guys from miles around and some of those places played host to a lot of future stars. Steve Marriott’s Moments played regularly here in 1964 as did The Birds featuring a future Rolling Stone! But the West End of London did become the centre of the universe to me and my favourite clubs were The Marquee, The Scene and The Lyceum, The Marquee in Wardour Street in particular. Did you know that they never even had a backstage loo at the time? Quite often punters would find themselves peeing standing next to somebody very famous! A little bit later than that I’d add Tiles Club to the list. I never went to the Flamingo probably because I never used to do the all night thing and that place didn’t open ’til about midnight. A lot of the guys would go straight there from the Marquee or wherever but I always seemed to be chasing my last train back to Romford! I also have very fond memories of The Scene club in Soho which was owned by the same guy that ran Radio Caroline. I remember one of the resident DJs, Guy Stevens, playing lots of fairly obscure American records and remember jotting titles down and then trying to buy them myself at my favourite record shop, Imhofs in New Oxford Street. A couple of titles that stick in my mind are ‘Pills’ by Bo Diddley (quite apt) and a track by Big Dee Irwin called ‘Happy Being Fat,’ which I’ve only just become re-acquainted with 50 years later through the wonder of YouTube. Another memory of these venues is that no alcohol was ever served, if you wanted a drink it was Coca Cola or Coca Cola! You could readily get drugs but not a beer! Shifty looking guys would circulate in The Scene taking orders for pills then they’d disappear outside and return shortly afterwards with lots of little white sealed envelopes! By the late 60s the look was evolving but we shouldn’t be surprised as that is exactly what mod ethics were all about. I’ve read many times of how 60’s Mods evolved into Skinheads. I never ever saw that. In the main, myself and my mates went the opposite route and by 1967/68 we were absorbed into the whole San Francisco scene and started growing the hair along with an assortment of weird moustaches and beards (I blame the Beatles!) Spiritually we were still Mods; visually we were very different from our old selves.

DRUMMER BOY: I’d been watching bands (we called them beat groups back then) since 1962 and whilst most other fans eyes were firmly fixed on the lead singer I was always drawn to the drums. I’m a firm believer in the fact that any group is only as good as its drummer; you cannot carry a bad drummer and get away with it. I distinctly remember, around summertime 1964, seeing a young guy with a big fringe hitting his bass drum so hard that it just wouldn’t keep still and during an interval several guys from the venue having to literally bolt the bass drum to the ground. The venue was the Shandon Irish Club in Romford and the unknown group (at the time) were called the High Numbers, who went on to change their name to The Who. The drummer was called Keith Moon although I didn’t know that at the time. I wonder what became of him! I wonder what became of them! Around early 1966 I bought myself my very first drum kit courtesy of hire purchase, £10 deposit and two quid a week and in all in my dad’s name as I wasn’t old enough. It was a very basic Olympic kit which was soon replaced by a much better Premier kit. I taught myself to play and shortly afterwards joined a local group that were known as The Circles, apparently there were two or three other bands using the same name so we re-christened ourselves as The Music Box. We were very big in Romford! And soon signed with a local agency that got us work literally all over the country and every weekend we’d be charging up and down the motorways of the UK. Any weekday gigs would have to be local as we all had day jobs to hold down. We were together for about 18 months and played some very high profile venues including Central London’s iconic Lyceum Ballroom. I estimate that we did something in the region of 200 shows and I can honestly say that I don’t ever remember being paid a penny! Somebody must have got the money, not me, perhaps the agency kept it all. It didn’t matter though we were kids having fun and after all it was only a matter of time before we became pop stars, or so we thought. We were not only young we were naive as well. After that initial band there were others including a nice ‘West Coast’ harmony group called Pink Gin. In between those I remember answering an ad in Melody Maker, ‘Drummer required for established London group.’ They were John’s Children. I remember vocalist Andy Ellison and another member of the band coming to my mum and dad’s house in Hornchurch to discuss this with me. They took my drum kit back with them in their van and I took the tube to the rehearsal rooms the very next day. They rehearsed in a place called Ickenham, up Wembley way, and initially they must have liked what they heard because I was invited back several times over the following few weeks. My only memory of those sessions was of us playing The Byrds song ‘So You Wanna Be a Rock n Roll Star’ over and over and over again. I even remember doing a photo shoot with them although I never did get to see the pics. I thought I’d got the job but original drummer Chris Townson decided to return to the fold. Once that happened I had no chance after all he was the guy that had recently depped for Keith Moon on a Who European tour. I was never in his league! By the early 70s I’d packed up and regretfully have never played since. I figure that if I had have continued I’d have been pretty good by now.

WRITING AND TV: I started freelance writing with several low key music weeklies in the 70s and by the 80s and 90s I was writing regularly for some of the country’s biggest music magazines such as Record Collector, Mojo, Uncut and Kerrang as well as doing sleeve-notes for CD and DVD compilations. I took over a Small Faces fanzine called ‘Darlings of Wapping Wharf Launderette’ from issue 5 onwards and managed to increase its readership from a mere 100 to several thousand over a 20 year period. It had subscriptions from every continent in the world and this was way before the hey-day of the World Wide Web. Following on from that came the publication in 2004 of Steve Marriott’s biography ‘All Too Beautiful’ written with Paolo Hewitt which is still in print 17 years later. Lots of other successful books followed featuring the likes of Ronnie Lane, Peter Meaden and 70s footie star Alan Hudson all via Kaleidoscope Publishing. Also lots of TV and radio work including acclaimed documentaries such as Soul Britannia, BBC 1 Inside Out, Oh You Pretty Things, Vinyl Frontier, Rock Under Review, The Other Side, When Pop Ruled My Life and a youth culture documentary with Melvyn Bragg. Many of these can be seen on YouTube.

PROMOTIONS: Wapping Wharf Promotions was first set up in 1997 with a view to staging a one-off Small Faces Convention at the Small Faces spiritual home, The Ruskin Arms in East London. That was so successful that it eventually became an annual event in Central London with fans attending from literally all over the world. It became a major part of the London music calendar and ran for 20 years. Lots of great bands and lots of great guests paying tribute to the East End of London’s very own Booker T and The MGs! Getting special guests along was never a problem they would ring me and beg! There were many very special and big name vocalists involved but my own very special memory is that of Stanley Unwin at the grand old age of 88 doing an audience Q and A. He was hilarious and as sharp as a pin. The audience lapped him up! On a much bigger stage I promoted both the Steve Marriott and Ronnie Lane Memorial Shows at the London Astoria and Royal Albert Hall respectively. The Marriott show in 2001 sold out weeks in advance and featured the likes of Paul Weller, Noel Gallagher and Peter Frampton amongst a star studded cast. The music was great, of course, but the thing that would have brought a big smile to Steve’s face if he was watching from above was the fact that we broke the bar takings record that night. Nine years later when the building was about to be demolished I received a phone call from the venue manager to tell me that that record stood right until the end. After the event at the after show party I remember somebody saying ‘Well we’ll have to do that for Ronnie (Lane) now’ and I jokingly said ‘Yeah we’ll get the Royal Albert Hall next time.’ And that’s exactly what we did. Three years later with 5,500 fans in that famous building we sold out. Ronnie’s dad once said to him ‘Learn to play the guitar, son, and you’ll always have a friend’ Ronnie did learn to play the guitar and he did have many friends in the business, more than most. Again an all-star cast, this time featuring Pete Townshend, Ronnie Wood and Paul Weller amongst many others from Rocks ‘Premier league.’ Pete Townshend in particular was a joy to work with and proved to be www.wappingwharf.comthe most generous man I’ve ever met. Being a charity gig the artists played for expenses only but I remember ringing him at his office about a month before the show and asking how many tickets he required for friends and family. This was usual procedure for everybody involved with the concert. Pete told me that he didn’t need any as he’d already bought 20 from Ticketmaster! Add to that he booked top class West End hotel rooms for several of the not-so-rich musicians involved in the show, all at his own expense. A wonderful gesture. At the end of the show after a rousing encore we all received a standing ovation. As I stood on that famous stage with the wonderfully talented cast I had to pinch myself just to ensure that I wasn’t dreaming. I wasn’t, dreams do come true. That momentous gig is currently available to watch on Prime TV, just type Ronnie Lane into the search. Wapping Wharf Promotions were also proud to present the annual Christmas Mod Ball at London’s 100 Club between 2009 and 2016. They always sold out and featured many great 60s favourites such as Geno Washington, The Pretty Things and PP Arnold.

Click HERE to watch

WAPPING WHARF RECORDS: Shortly before Steve Marriott’s long-time manager Laurie O’Leary died in 2004 he called me to his office (in Wapping of all places!) and handed me a carrier bag full of recording tapes from Steve’s own home studio. I rescued them from going into a skip, nobody else wanted them. When he wasn’t on tour during the 1970s Steve literally lived in his studio making good music with various musician friends of his. Laurie’s words to me were along the lines of ‘Just make sure the world gets to hear these’ and that’s just what I did. The high quality of the recordings never wavered and had Steve had a good record deal during the late 70s and 80s much of this material would have been released during his lifetime. Following on from the advice of Laurie, Wapping Wharf Records was set up in association with Steve’s estate, by that I mean Steve’s next of kin, his widow Toni and her business partner. My role was to source ‘new’ material for CD releases and then license (pay for) them from SMLL (Steve Marriott Licensing Ltd). Many classic recordings such as Steve’s collaboration with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and some mega cool pre-Small Faces tracks were amongst these. Ten albums including the best selling Rainy Changes CD were released. I no longer work with Steve’s estate. I’m currently working with the best guy in the business, Lewis Griffiths (Solar Films/Kaleidoscope Records) on several projects dealing with all sorts of diverse subjects. Lewis and I are on the same wavelength and I cannot envisage working with anybody else. Google us eh?

SUMMARY: I’m very old school and not easily impressed but it warms the cockles of the heart to see so many young guys and gals still into the scene and hopefully carrying it forward for many generations to come. The most obvious difference is the fact that we always looked forward. Clothes and music changed almost on a weekly basis. Mod today is all about retro even though a lot of them wouldn’t admit it. The scene is VERY healthy and that’s all that matters.For somebody like me that was born in 1949 the sight, sound and experience of Mod is summed up by a smoky, crowded Saturday night club where Junior Walker and the All Stars records are playing full volume! The 60s generally was exciting; it was also a tumultuous decade that changed the face of the earth. Colour was invented! And music and clothes, the two most important things in my young life were full of new ideas and vibrant. If time travel were available that’s where I’d be.

John Hellier