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... some rock'n'roll history.
"Whass' on, nenn-n-n?" This was John's greeting delivered in an exaggerated west country accent when we met. It was July 1969 - "Splinter" was formed - John (bass, vocals), Gooch Harris (keyboards), Ed Bicknell (drums) and me (clapped out Ford Thames 15cwt minibus). The new band was awesome, playing covers but with extended keyboard / bass / drum solos, which were the flavour of the day back then. There was not a lot going on during the summer for new kids on the block. John Sherry of Southbank Artistes got us some fifty quid gigs around London, some odd jobs including painting the Kray's gym, and even let us doss some nights at the agency in Kennington. But one day in early September, the dear old rocker Jess Conrad turned up at the agency looking for a backing band and thus began a series of northern club gigs - Batley and Keighley Variety Clubs, Middlesbrough Showboat, Bedlington Domino. It were great fun, eee, bluddy 'ell, but a bit rough, like, enough money for only one guest house room, so we would take it in turns - two in the room, two dossing in the back of the minibus. Batley Variety Club... the friendly waitresses who felt sorry for us and brought out left-over chicken-in-the-basket... getting woken up in the minibus at 7am by incessant barking from the performing poodle show doing its morning rehearsals in the car park... getting woken another time on a piece of wasteground in Leeds one morning to find the minibus was moving - a bunch of urchins were trying to push us down a hill... cramming into Jess's Mustang to go around town... attending a party thrown for us by a gay BBC Yorkshire producer, the four of us sitting squashed up together on a 3-seat sofa, petrified (well, this was 1969) while potato crisps were served up in a chamber pot... unexpected late night cocoa with Long John Baldry at a guest-house in Stockton. Then there was the charity gig at a home for mentally handicapped kids, band gear supplied by the venue. John walked out on stage with his bass, optimistically holding his jack plug at chest height looking for the bass stack. "Don't trip over it, John," I warned him, "it's down there." At our feet was a single 8" cone mini-bass amp. Jesse was great fun, and entertained us new boys with a wealth of bizarre rock'n'roll stories about his life on the road, and his extrovert mates... like Leapy Lee... the uses of a "blimping pencil"... (perhaps I'll stop there in the interests of propriety). Ed was in his element up north, and had some wonderful chat-up lines such as "Eh oop, loov, how's yer botty today?" They worked every time; Gooch re-christened him "Wondermouth". Then we got a week at a club at Jersey and teamed up with a singer called Chris who also ran a clothes shop called "Bona Togs". John's sense of humour again... the two of us were sitting in the sun on an unusually deserted St Helier beach when suddenly an RAF fighter jet appeared on the horizon and aimed straight at us, skimming the waves, and roaring inland. As we looked up, we saw hundreds of people lining the sea wall... and they were looking down at us - a pair of ridiculous hippies sitting on an empty beach in their swimmies. John turns to me with a pompous, retired colonel expression and accent: "What do they think this is, a bloody air show?" Regular northern university gigs started with the new academic term in October 1969. We joined the exodus of Transit band vans heading up the A1 from London on Saturday lunch times. More memories... supporting the great bands of the day... watching out for the handful of not-so-great bands who would try to nick other bands' gear... scavenging whatever food we could find... the long haul back to London in the early hours... Those gigs earned us fifty quid a pop. Fifteen went to Southbank, the minibus took twenty in fuel, I got two quid and the band split the rest. Rich, we weren't, hungry we were (the concept of signing on the dole was very un-rock'n'roll in those days) and John taught me some useful survival skills. Scene... heading back to London... motorway services at 4am... band orders cups of tea... locates tired nuclear family with several fractious kids and a table of over-ordered food... band sits down close by... nuclear family eventually abandons food and goes off into the night... band pounces on the table and finishes the job for them. Rock'n'roll banquet! The year wore on, fees were sometimes as little as 45 quid, the minibus started to break down frequently and the weather got worse - much worse for us - the vehicle wasn't even equipped with a heater. But on one occasion, the engine overheated on the way to a gig, and I had the bright idea of opening the engine hatch (the engine compartment in a Thames sits between the driver and front passenger) and pulling off the radiator cap. The band was pristine and stage-ready and Ed was clad in all-white gear. Imagine my surprise, once the steam had cleared, to find John and Ed covered in hot brown sludge from head to toe. (They were very good about that, and to this day I still feel very bad about it. Crap roady or what?) On another occasion returning to London in a snowstorm, snow and ice started to work its way through the floor, forcing the rubber mat upwards so much that clutch, brake and accelerator pedals became inoperable. In freezing pre-dawn conditions, we had to stop, climb underneath, and chip ice away with a screwdriver until the pedals were free. It was starting to become Not Much Fun. The future of the band seemed bleak, we seemed to be going nowhere, and before the year was out, Splinter splintered amicably and became history. John went on to do great things with some of my favourite bands - Family, King Crimson and Asia; Gooch went on to do great things with the magnificent Arthur Brown, and Ed went on to manage super-guitarman Mark Knopfler. I have followed John's career ever since. Gooch passed away in 2015, now John in 2017. I retain fine memories of John's warmth as a human being, the hospitality of his affable parents who put us up and fed us at their Bournemouth hotel, his sense of humour, and his awesome bass playing. May he be at peace at the great northern gig in the sky, mercifully free of performing poodles and hopeless roadies, and may we all continue to enjoy the very happy memories and great music he has left behind. John Wetton R.I.P. __________________ Pike