Pete Hammerton - The Other Road, Less Travelled.
To those of us that never saw the heady, creative Utopia of the sixties, it is difficult to imagine such an evolution of thought and ideas being packed into a decade. With the birth of relevant music and experimental sounds, it appears a musical camaraderie existed that is still reminisced, appreciated and held with reverence today. New conceptions of fashion, music, art were burning bridges with the more conservative decades that had come before. A rebellion of rock n roll and sexual freedom were sweeping the new generations. Civil rights actions, protest and American influence were crossing the Atlantic and being embraced by the younger population hungry for change. Political scandals were rocking London and more liberal values were creating an open society. In the heart of it, Soho represented an undiluted music scene. One of Brian Epstein’s last signed acts “The Others” were making their way through this musical shift and I sat down with their lead guitarist Pete Hammerton for part one of an interview to talk galloping guitarists, cheap venues, life in Soho and the force of nature that was Jimi Hendrix……………..
So what is your first memory of music?
We had a wind up gramophone, it was electric but it had a clockwork motor on the turntable. You had to keep winding it up or it would go slower and slower. We had a load of 78’s, mostly classical like Debussy and Strauss. We also had a recording of The Inkspots and I used to play these records when I was a little kid. We were an eclectic household but it was quite a limited collection. The other source was listening to anything on the radio from light opera to the pop of the time. I was aware it was crap because the watershed came in the early sixties. Alma Cogan was a victim of the changing times, she had a show on television which crossed over the time period when The Beatles came to fame, and she went from popular to looking incredibly dated such was the speedy shift in ideas of manufactured music. It’s like when punk came along and pushed out very anal prog rock music which was so unsexy.
So when you were developing an understanding of music, who were you noticing and listening to?
I loved the sound of the Everley Brothers and their harmonies in particular. The precision was nothing like the English music at all. We had these pale copies of these lightweight crooners, people like Dicky Valentine and they were all superseded by Cilla Black and The Beatles. It was more like light opera and tunes that were rehashed as songs…it had no relevance to life or the changing times. “How much is that doggy in the window?” It’s enough to make you lose the will to live. Self-congratulatory crap whilst bobbing around looking inanely pleased with themselves. It was the American influence of musicians like Elvis Presley and Bill Hailey that started the change in outlook. It was exciting and it had a different feel to it, edgier somehow with covert sexual references from black American music, which we didn’t get at the time! It got you into a totally alien culture and the whole American scene which seemed to be a lot cooler. Mainly, the voices blend and sound better. Southern English voices tend not to sound as good unless you sing estuary English but received pronunciation isn’t very good for rock.
I started with a band called The Blue Jays. I spent a lot of time with my grandparents in Chiswick and joined a youth club there. It was in Turnham Green Terrace in the church hall and they had a bass player called Bill who used to play as many open notes as possible and he spent most of his time directing the chrome plate on his guitar to shine the spotlight into girl’s faces. He was more interested in that than actually playing I think. They had a very good drummer called Dave Nibblett who was technically brilliant and Colin Goddard who played lead guitar. The Rhythm guitarist was a guy called Martin otherwise known as “Galloping Martin”. He was just a flamboyant character, really extraordinary. He was very different – He used to prance around on the stage but not be able to keep time. I started going to dances at this youth club and with money from my fifteenth birthday I had brought my first acoustic guitar. I practised for a few months and went around someone’s house in Chiswick and Colin was there. They were trying to work something out and I picked up the guitar and said I know that and started playing. They seemed amazed because I just listened to music and picked things up, thinking that’s how things were done. They asked me to join the band and poor Galloping Martin got his marching orders. I was actually very shy.
So you elected to join a band?
Well yes, I hated being in the audience in a way. I’d rather be part of what was happening on stage as I didn’t like the scene in the audience somehow. I was more self-conscious and I didn’t feel comfortable marching in and standing there. I didn’t want to feel ill at ease in amongst the girls in the sports jacket my mother made me buy instead of The Beatle jacket that I wanted. I decided I’d rather be part of it and be up there contributing to the sound (minus the sports jacket.)
So after the Blue Jays which were your first band which band do you consider your first ‘serious’ band?
The first serious band was called The Tridents and they were associated with the youth club and Dave Nibblett who played in both bands. The Lucas brothers who made up the band were older and it was a Shadows format with a singer called Barry Bunting who did Cliff Richard stuff. Their guitarist left and they had gigs booked so they asked me to stand in so I worked with them for a few weeks. They were going on to play in Germany and I told my parents I wanted to leave school before my O levels but they seemed to think it was a bad idea. As it turned out I would have been too young for a work permit in those days to go to Germany. I left the band, joined another band at school and broke out of the Chiswick scene. The next band member to replace me into The Tridents was Jeff Beck and they made the transition into Rhythm & Blues. At the same time the band I had joined were heading into the same direction so I had to learn how to play in that style too. I’d stay up all night listening to the record player turned down to zero so my parents wouldn’t wake up.
What was the school band called?
The Explosive Unit 5. Or Unit 5 for short.
What kind of venues were you playing?
We got gigs at social clubs and local factories where they had work socials on Friday night and dances at church halls. Sometimes we would try and put on a gig or our “manager” would arrange some for us. We were doing quite a few gigs and music by The Beatles and Chuck Berry. Learning to sing and play made you put quite a few music miles under your belt and there were more opportunities to play in public. We got payed as well…our first gig we got payed 25 shillings or 5 shillings each.
With band members swapping around and opportunities to move quite freely to different projects, did you ever have any near misses with fame?
I was lucky. I joined bands at times when they had good management sorted out and they were just starting to go places. Like for example with The Others but something always seemed to happen to just spoil it. I was leaving school and two of the guys in The Others didn’t want to leave education and didn’t want to turn professional. They asked me if I’d join as lead guitarist so I left Unit 5 to join The Others and Brian May joined Unit 5. Brian and I played together all the time at school usually in our lunch hours. When I left school and joined The Others and went professional, Brian who was then going to university joined John Garnham and they formed 1984. There was another guy at school called Vic Briggs of whom Jimi Hendrix said “he was one of the best guitar players he’s heard in England”. He in turn was taught by Jim Sullivan who was one of the most prolific guitar session men of the sixties, seventies and eighties. He played on dozens of hits with everyone including The Beatles. Vic Briggs played with Long John Baldry and Julie Driscoll and then later with Eric Burden in The New Animals. There was Jim McCarty and Paul Samwell- Smith of The Yard birds so it was quite a hotbed of music but it would be in that area (Richmond) which was the heartland of British Rhythm and Blues.
In retrospect mentioning Brian (May)and sitting learning guitar in your lunch hour, is it strange to remember those school days and match that to his popularity since?
No, I mean. I’d been on the London club scene and we’d had Brian Epstein as our manager. I’d actually decided I didn’t want to do that for a living. At that time in the mid-sixties it didn’t feel like a career. No one knew you could sustain a career like that. Six decades in rock and roll seems ridiculous and even the most popular bands held that disbelief. Ringo was asked by a journalist where he saw the Beatles going from now and he replied “Well I don’t mind as long as by the end of it I have enough money to open my own hair dressing salon”. Even at that level nobody thought it was a fucking career! A lot of the bands like Manfred Mann and The Stones came up through the small university and art college population. Only about 5% of school leavers went to university at that time but now it seems like nearly everybody goes to university and half of them study music so it is seen as a career path.
So the times they-were-a-changing but not quick enough to suggest career security?
Yes, I always had in mind that I would be doing something professional and stable. Music did not appear that way.
So before the serious professional career you indulged the music “hobby”, when did you start touring?
About 18 years old with The Others.
Is that a time where you had booked gigs or was it “in the van and off down the motorway, see what happens”?
No, we had top management at the time. We had Brian Morrison who managed The Pretty Things and we were his project. Then Paul (Singer in The Others) left and went back to school through parental and economic pressure. His family came to collect him from our house where he was staying. It’s like they were trying to get him away from …I don’t know….
Yes! It was!
Before you all floated down the River Styx in your guitar cases?
Yes, it was like getting him away from a cult. The whole family came and he left with them and then got his hair cut and went back to school the week the record came out. We tried to go on as a four piece doing the singing ourselves but it didn’t work and that’s when we tried to get David Bowie to join the band! We were always hanging out around Denmark Street at Giaconda coffee bar at the top of Charing Cross road. We saw this guy who looked pretty cool having a coffee and we all sat round him and said Hi. We got talking; I think he was Davey Jones at that point. He had a velvet jacket, a striped shirt with a white collar and his hair blonde and bobbed, I remember him wearing hipsters and ankle boots. He looked the part and we had a chat. At the time he was playing saxophone in a group called Mannish Boys, named after an old blues song. (Starts to sing) “I’m a man, ain’t no mannish boy. I’m a man”.
So he turned you down?
He did. Reluctantly.
(laughs) David, David (clearly addressing a young Bowie). You’re a fool to yourself.
So Bowie turned you down and you were one short?
(more laughter) I always have been.
(laughs)…that takes us to the scene in London. Tell me about that?
I remember we hung out in Soho all the time. Our management were in one of the squares in Soho. Brian Morrison had a first floor office and The Pretty Things were always in there, fighting. I remember Brian Pendleton the rhythm guitarist fighting with the road manager (Phil the Greek) over something. They had a room divider and they were counting money from a gig and a row broke out. This room divider went over and the fists flew.
Soho almost appears like a melting pot of music. For anyone who wasn’t around for those early days, it’s a little mind blowing to consider so much talent in such a concentrated space. The people we considered as musical legends were mixing freely and so visible.
It’s incredible to think of the people we would see around the Soho area alone. I’ve been into music shops and seen Carl Perkins (writer of Blue Suede Shoes), Steve Howe, Ronnie Wood when he was in the Birds. I’d chat to Viv Stanshall (Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band), John Alvey Turner. You would see Cat Stevens, Bowie, Donavan, Clapton, Beck, Rod Stewart just walking about; in fact you would bump into anyone and everyone. It was an amazing time to be around. Soon The Others became Sands and we were hanging out with people like Hendrix. He’d be hanging out at clubs where we played a lot.
I’ve always felt Hendrix has an almost mythical quality to him. I don’t know if it is his early demise or his seemingly futuristic talent. What was he like?
Played air guitar…constantly.
I remember being together at The Speak Easy club in Piccadilly Circus….. (thinks about whereabouts of clubs). There were loads of them the Bag O Nails, Sybillas…….. Hendrix would lope around like a fifth former playing air guitar to whatever was going on; he’d quite happily pick up a right handed guitar and play it. His guitar was strung the other way, it was strung like a left handed guitar so the strings appear the wrong way around. He would get up and stand in with whoever was playing at the Speak Easy and do some kind of solo on whatever guitar was available. He didn’t give a shit; he was great and had no pretentions about music. I saw him at The Marquee Club and he covered a version of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. He’d quite happily change things for musical pleasure whether it was on a stage or even live television. He had an “I’ve had enough of this shit, let’s do something more interesting” attitude.
Do you think that was his underlying personality or enhanced with something else?
He’d been playing in the States as a sideman with all sorts of artists like James Brown or anyone really as a pick up guitarist so he was used to doing spontaneous performance.
How did mixing with artists like Hendrix influence your own style at the time? Did you take things from it and say we must try……?
God, yes! We didn’t blatantly copy but the thing about Hendrix is he had a blues pallet and it’s in the sound and the way he developed the electric aspect. He took basic blues and pushed it through an amplifier in a different kind of way. He put the shits up Clapton, Page, and Beck when they heard him play. It was something new and extraordinary; he was a force of nature!
We saw a lot of people but we didn’t go to many parties, we didn’t hang out to that extent. I was never that into any intoxicating substances really.
That must have been a big part of the scene though. I should imagine it was available wherever you went, more so than the 80’s, 90’s. Was it a conscious decision to stay away as it would be detrimental to the music because I would also imagine that it would be hard to avoid when it’s so freely available?
We smoked a bit, not a lot. We had a “business” meeting at a flat in Bayswater and we were plied with professionally rolled joints in a cigarette case. We disgraced ourselves…I was ok because I have a strong stomach but some of the others were affected worse. They managed to collapse in the loo and throw up in the sink; it turned into a bit of a debacle. We couldn’t remember where our van was parked so we ended up getting a taxi back to Twickenham where our very unamused girlfriends were waiting. We had been missing at this “business meeting” for 8 hours……and we turned up stoned and smelling of whiskey.
Did it put you off?
(joins in laughter) No I guess that was a bloody good night!
We weren’t hardened to it because we didn’t hit it with the frequency that plenty of other artists did. It was a social thing at parties as part of the scene rather than a party specifically for that purpose. We didn’t use drugs to write songs etc.
Were the partys mostly musicians or a creative mixture?
It was a blur of faces really. We stuck with our own friends but occasionally we would go to parties with hundreds of people so you could just mix with whomever you choose. We didn’t go to showbiz parties but there would be people around. I met Christine Keeler (her involvement in what would become known as The Profumo affair, discredited Harold Macmillan conservative government in 1963) at such a party and she gave me her number, she seemed lovely and quite vulnerable considering the furore that has followed her affair.
What age did you go into a different profession and leave full time music behind?
I was 23.
That must have been quite strange to settle in a 9-5 career after the creativity and fluidity of those early days in music.
Yes, I hated it. I didn’t like the structure but I was looking to settle down.
Did you stop completely?
No, I always played a bit. I remember doing session musician work with Madeline Bell (American soul singer). I had gone into accountancy but I would phone in sick for jobs like a TV show in Holland with Rob Tolchard (The Others). Just miming for a show called Eddie, Ready….Go with The Bee Gees and I thought I was unlikely to get caught out in Holland. The Bee Gees were brilliant, they sat around a piano and their vocals blended perfectly as only brothers could. I’d also had time off to do Radio One Club with Gary Taylor who had just left The Herd and was DJing. So I never really left music alone………….
To follow the other road less travelled, please watch this space for part two………………….