Thursday, 23 July 2009

It Was 30 Years Ago Today: Age Of Berlin

June 1979 was the month when `O' levels were completed, school was out forever, (until sixth form college at least, and you could wear denim at sixth form) and a long summer stretched out ahead of us. We didn't look back or give a thought to those who we would probably never see again, which in the case of some of the girls was a shame. Karen Mustard where are you now ? Many of us who'd done `O' levels were on course to bag a couple of `A' levels and eventually fly off from our Teesside enclave to a university somewhere to start our own adventures in halls of residence and 'Young Ones' styled student houses in cities like Sheffield, Manchester and even Bromley. Others were destined to spend their whole lives in Marske-by-the -Sea. We saw no reason to spend the rest of our lives in the place where we happened to be born.

I recently saw an old female classmate in `The Ship' on one of my regular visits to my hometown. It came as quite a shock to me, she looked well over 50, and like she'd had a pretty rough life, no doubt with a pretty rough bloke or two. We were sitting next to her for twenty minutes before the penny dropped as to who she was. I'm sure she was even in my `top ten' back in Mr Hebden's class. I immediately revised any plans I had to attend the impending 30 year school reunion. Too scary, and let's face it, if you haven't tried to keep in touch with someone over the last 30 years, then maybe you never had a thing in common in the first place. I left Marske 26 years ago and never wished I'd stayed there. I love the place dearly, but only to come back to.

Of far more significance to me than leaving school, the summer of 1979 also marked the beginning of a magical and fun process which continues to this day; getting together in a room and making a purposeful noise with other people. I did it as recently as last Sunday and it was still fun ! In fact it was amazing. We kept the next band waiting outside 10 minutes while we finished up a most unholy and hallucogenic racket, and when we finally finished one of them had the grace to ask us who we were influenced by, "on that performance... I would say the devil" I could only reply, as the sweat dripped off me onto the floor.

Back in July 1979 when Duncan and I took our seats at the History table during our prospective sixth form's `meet the students' open day, it was actually our own personal histories we were unwittingly setting in motion. One of the students who'd volunteered to tell all about `A' level History was Mark Spybey. As was `de rigeur' in those days among 16 year old boys, I had my haversack on display lovingly painted with the names of my musical heroes, and discussion soon turned away from History and to their relative merits..."don't like them, don't like THEM, they're OK..." Duncan piped up that he'd been messing about with audio generators and tape machines at home. "Wow ! like Dik Mik from Hawkwind ?" said Mark. We all agreed Hawkwind was good. Mark then uttered the immortal words which would change our lives forever: "the college has a synthesizer you know".

So somehow before we had even properly enrolled at the place, we managed to blag their most precious educational tool, the Roland SH1000, on long term loan. We could scarcely believe it as it sat in Duncan's front room making random noises at us. Spybey brought his old friend Mark Sanderson round to marvel at Duncan's tape echo skills and give us his best robot impression to test them out. We formed a band right there and then. For me it was the moment we ceased to be schoolkids and moved up into a new world. They were only a year older than us, but it felt like a lot more.

A rehearsal was arranged for July 23rd, at Joe's parents' house at 81 Hummershill Lane, Marske-by-the-Sea. If you drive past it today you'll not notice a blue `English Heritage' plaque commemorating the event. Joe was going to be the vocalist but hadn't really got a clue, hadn't written anything, and spent his time farting about, eventually rendered speechless by the racket which ensued from those gathered in his unknowing parents' house. The rest of us meant business in a 16-17 year old kind of way. On guitar was Jon Davis, Led Zeppelin fan and ego-maniac, who brought his tape machine along too, placing it right next to his amp, so all he could hear on the recording was himself. His nemesis in terms of musical taste and personality was Spybey who was a tidy assured drummer. Sandy played Bass. Spib and Sandy had worked on a collection of riffs which we used as a starting point....and indeed a finishing point.

Then there was Duncan and me. Duncan had an Audio Generator and real tape echo for making swooping noises (that Ferrograph machine weighed a ton), and because I could almost pick out a tune, I got to play the synthesizer. Duncan and me had comically transported everything to Joe's house about half a mile away balanced precariously on Duncan's red Go-cart, after our primary mode of transport, a speed frame, had collapsed under the weight of the synthesizer, the aforementioned Ferrograph tape machine, and a flight case after (according to Duncan) "about 4 foot".

Mark Spybey had come up with a typed manifesto: "Harmony is Harmony. Noise is Noise: This is the noise" and a band name: AGE OF BERLIN (How thrilling to be IN A BAND, particularly one with pluralistic undertones, it would be another ten years before the wall came down) "Space-Rock, Psychedelic Renewalism" it continued. I'm not quite certain what the latter was exactly, but we have certainly become well acquainted with the former in the ensuing years. As we made our way precariously to that first rehearsal, we felt like we had arrived into a new world. Boy, did we have fun ! Duncan and I went through the same 18" speaker, which didn't stop Duncan being twice as loud as anyone else, and terrorizing us with everything from echo sounders ("Don't ! it kills yer !" I can be heard begging for mercy on the tape) to pneumatic drills ("Aaaaaagh ! Woooo!") as I wazzed around on a synthesizer for the first time; literally a kid with a new toy. Before the afternoon was out that speaker would already be well on the way to premature burn out.

It was also the first time I'd been within touching distance of an actual drum kit, and when Spib handed me the sticks during the lunchtime pastie break, it was the moment I'd been waiting for all my life. I already knew I was going to be a drummer, and this just confirmed it. He was also kind enough to let me have the kit on loan for the next couple of years when he went off to college, and I taught myself to play, to the joy and delight of all at 8 Wanstead Close and surrounding properties.

You could therefore say that July 23rd 1979 was one of the most significant days of my life. It was the first time we heard ourselves as part of a band and at full volume, the glory of a huge vibrating racket, and I immediately knew that nothing else could compare, we had a purpose in life !

Over that summer we spent evenings round at Spib's in Redcar, full of exciting ideas for the band while he played us all sorts of stuff from an impressive contemporary record collection: Gang Of Four, Joy Division, The Specials' debut single Gangsters, John Cooper-Clarke, Alternative TV, `Pop Musik' by M and er...Tubeway Army, but you can't win them all. Things were moving fast musically in the UK, the old guard had been jettisoned (by him not us, I was still listening to Genesis) but we found common ground in the likes of Peter Hammill, Hawkwind, Here and Now and Hillage. Before the summer was out Public Image Ltd unleashed the mighty `Metal Box' which changed things for everybody including me. Sandy actually handed over £7.49 for this artefact. I think he must have had a paid job, as it was an outrageous sum for us to contemplate as penniless students, fantastic though it was.

I had no problem ignoring the less savoury trends of the time like the godawful `New Wave Of British Heavy Metal 'which gave us Saxon, Iron Midden, Lef Deppelin and the likes, and I stuck to a core of all things progressive, who many of the `New Wave' bands liked anyway as it later turned out. (It was a sweet moment many years later when Keith Levene, guitar `enfant terrible' of Public Image Ltd admitted his favourite album of all time was Yes' `Tales From Topographic Oceans', idolised Steve Howe and had even roadied for them as a schoolboy ! Ha Ha Ha. I was once hit for liking Yes by a PiL fan !). I loved the humour, originality and DIY diversity of some of the wayward souls that the `new wave' threw up into the spotlight, there's never been a time like it since; totally non-corporate. I listened to and absorbed everything anybody cared to throw at me over the airwaves and in their record collections (apart from The Clash with their ugly sloganeering and joyless posturing. Of course, they inevitably became my younger brother's favourite band as is always the case in sibling conflict) .

One Sunday night at Spib's, his friend Russ Walker brought Gary Houghton round. He was learning the guitar, and happened to be in the process of moving to Marske from Redcar. Jon Davis slid off the radar sometime around Zeppelin's last stand at Knebworth, and Gary became our new guitarist. Age Of Berlin finished after nearly a year's apprenticeship, during which we rehearsed, never gigged, but learnt a lot (photos here taken in April 1980 at Zetland Church Hall). Spib went off to study Music Therapy, and eventually moved to Vancouver, surfacing back into our lives many years later with a highly impressive musical CV. Our reunion with Mark as a member of Michael Karoli's band in 1999 at the Can Barbican solo gigs was quite an occasion ("Yes I remember playing Redcar, where is there more booze ?" Michael Karoli)

Duncan, Gary and me had already started recording with the synthesiser at Duncan's by the end of 1979, and here we still are 30 years later, 30 and more albums later, having established Radio Massacre International as a way of musical life which has taken us to places we only dreamed of.

Here are a couple of tunes from the day when it all started, big cheers to Mark Spybey for being a mighty catalyst.