I cant really ever remember not singing.
My mum was always singing a rendition of something or other as she cooked or washed or cleaned and our uncle John sang all day long. He never stopped. He just sang and sang all the while between chain smoking and doing generally dodgy D.I.Y. Jobs, so at Christmas it was never too much of a surprise to hear him singing away while the central heating sprayed us as we ate our Christmas dinner.
Then I joined the choir.
Well I didn’t really join it. I just got picked at a compulsory singing audition with our headmistress, Mrs. Clow, who brought the axe demonically down on the dodgy voices and pardoned the rest of us into the church choir. I don’t know which was worse but no doubt many an able musician was thwarted that day and probably damaged for evermore. Those of us press ganged into the choir suddenly found our Sundays consumed with matins and evensong, sunday school in the afternoon and thursday night choir practice. The good bit was getting 5 bob for a wedding and the three monthly pay packets of half a crown for attending choir practice. These came in little brown window envelopes with our names typed on and stuck down with that adhesive you have to roll off and stays in snotty lumps on your fingers for days. I eventually ended up as head boy in the choir, the only reason for which was my voice steadfastly refused to break until I was 86 and so heading up the trebles in a ruff, a surplus and a purple robe became a ritual I was desperate to break.
Anyway break it I eventually did and rather than graduate into the ‘men’ who had intimidated and bullied us into hysterical silences throughout many a giggling sermon by pushing their heavy hymnals into the backs of our shorn heads, I left [hooray] and started playing guitar with my mate Chips.
We did the Everlies and close harmony stuff and wore identical brown and black chequered polyester waistcoats for our gigs (not much different to the choir really if you think about it).
Anyway our gigs were the 18 plus club, The Hinckley grammar school old boys (prestigiously known as The Old Hinckleyans) and the Plough, Hinckley where most evenings we would serenade 2 old ladies Gertie and Alice in the snug.
Then we got a bit good and started to take ourselves more seriously and we got kaftans and bells and spent many a long mind-
Chips has passed on now, God bless him, but his legacy lives on and though dark are the current days in terms of the political climate hope springs ever new as they say.
Anyway I digress.
I guess I should say here that I became obsessed with playing the guitar.
I couldn’t leave it alone .. ever.. and I swear it had similar feelings for me too. I used to sleep with it and it also just about consumed every waking part of my day. I was always fiddling about with it, learning songs, learning new chords or just enchanted by its gorgeousness and the zillion melodic and harmonic puzzles it threw at me.
I started writing songs and doing Dylan and Donovan covers and once I could finger pick, I was the beast of Belle Vue Road. I got Anne Smith on oboe and cor anglais and Sybil Olive (of hot pants fame) on fiddle to join me and we formed a charming little trio called Chicago Cottage after this great little American Harmonium I’d bought from some auction or other.
It was like a musical bike. I loved it almost as much as my guitar.. well almost … (no don’t listen to me, guitar) .. it didn’t stand a chance really.
We were great. We actually were an unbelievably class act .. just like that .. almost out of nowhere. They could play anything I wanted them to try and dollop all sorts of wonderful harmonies and embellishments all over it … and they valued me and took my musical comments and writing really seriously .. made me feel so good and the end product was just stunning. People came from all around to hear us play and no doubt to ogle the contents of Sybil’s hot pants. (I think I still have some recordings somewhere of Chicago Cottage so in the very near future I will hoist them up onto the web site) but, like bottoms, all good things must come to an end and of course they were teenagers ready for university and though I really wanted to hang on to them I knew their talent and careers would hasten them away. Actually the last time I heard, Sybil was playing for the BBC Wales Symphony orchestra and Anne for the Doilly Carte (not sure bout the spelling here).
See I trained ‘em young…got ‘em off to a good start. God bless you both and thank you so very much. I’ve always used you two as a measure of how good things can be.
Then I formed Wellington.
I was renting an old farmhouse (its gone now. The fucking council knocked it down and replaced it with a shit block of flats .. morons).
Anyway I turned the dairy into a recording studio with my songwriting partner Howard Latham. I met Howard around 1970. He was (and still is) a very talented songwriter, singer and producer and, soon after we met, we began writing together and recording at Heath Farm. Howard had lots of technical knowledge and his early recordings were wonderful even with the limited technology available then and, as we recorded and wrote, they got better and better as did our songs. We spent loads of time writing and badgering Denmark Street with our musical efforts but really with no great success and eventually we went our separate ways although our paths do cross occasionally nowadays and we have recently had a track included on a Wellington album that has seen the light of day. Many of our earlier recodings were covered by Chicago Cottage which I will try to put on this site at some future date.
After my success with Chicago Cottage, I thought “I want some more of this” so I just went out into the streets of Earl Shilton and got some more musicians in and unbelievably it all went like clockwork.
Steve Talbot was the drummer and he lived in Earl Shilton. John Cavendish (bass) Barwell [next door pretty much], Steve Whetstone (electric fiddle) Burbage [next door pretty much] and Keith Krykant Blaby [a bit further away but not much] on guitars and me on acoustic guitar vocals and 3 notes I could play on an E flat clarinet I got somewhere.
For about 3 years we strutted the musical heights of original music and stamped our moniker wherever we could but we were just working class kids, had no clout, knew nobody in the business (as they say) and our aspirations to succeed were thwarted at every turn … plus the system meant nobody could really invest their lives into becoming a full time unpaid musician.
We all had families to look after, rent to pay and boring fucking jobs to do.
Anyway during this time Chips came back into the band after doing his degree in English at London University but we’d lost our mojo a bit by then and we couldn’t get it back whatever we did and that was the first time I’d experienced that inability to get my enthusiasm and drive to dig things out and move things on.
Oh well, slightly jaded but not totally intimidated by this lack of success I struggled on.
This time with 3 versions of a band called Larry the Bat (marks 1,2 and 3) with Brian Webber on lead guitar, Keith, his brother, on bass and Chris Comber on percussion and harmony.
Keith left and Baz joined. He was the business. A great bass player and a most formidable character in every sense of the word. Inspirational to say the very least.
At about this time we’d met this guy who had ‘connections’ and he wanted to manage us. He had money and influence and access to the corridors of pop power and he wanted to get us on to Top of the Pops and dress us up in Bat gear. Unfortunately he had absolutely no concern for or conception of what we were and what we were doing and his only asset was his wealth. Many a meeting involved studying reams of contractual nonsense that he was determined to embroil us in. My fondest memory of this period (and this is where Baz comes in) was Baz pissing up the side of this guy’s Rolls Royce after a particularly harrowing evening studying skimpy designs of Bat gear for our next gig.
For me this was a sort of emancipatory gesture that sowed a seed for future acts of rebellion.
The first rung on a ladder of anarchic possibilities that have been growing in me for the last 30 years or so and are just beginning to come to fruition.
Anyway,inspired by Baz’s anarchy and his wonderful bass playing and slightly demoralized by all the difficulties I was now experiencing trying to run a band, I took up the bass and became somebody else’s band member. Seventeen Quid it cost me (the bass I mean) and the only reason I came away with it was because I broke a string when I went to try it.
Anyway it was a great investment and I never looked back. It was like a musical geography lesson for me. I realized there were frets beyond the first 3 and I was beginning to play them.
Musically speaking, I had my 2nd great spurt. The first was being able to finger pick and this second one let me in on some bits of musical theory which had both eluded and terrified me up to this point. So I started playing bass with the Leicestershire legendary blues man Bob Dayfield.
And God did I love it .. the power, the possibilities, the ability to steer and drive the music from the back thrilled me and I got better and better and developed massively during this period as a writer and as a musician.
I was also becoming much more politically aware and finding my feet in terms of what I really wanted to write about.
Well, me n Bob lasted a couple of years and what with marriage, kids and the constant struggle for money, me and Chips got back together and formed Earl and the Shiltones (locals will understand the sheer genius of this name) with Harry Heppingstall of the Matadors, six five special and ‘fast cars and sexy women’ fame.
This was some meaty little outfit with Chips on his Strat and me on my Futurama bass and Harry beating the hell out of his drums as we belted out close harmony classics all over the place. Magic little band and, because there was only the 3 of us, we had to do it all.
I learned so much during this stage of my life about working together, filling in and just enjoying playing and of course we always had a bit of spare money for the kids and holidays and a few extras. I mean for all of us money was always tight .. never enough .. but to get just a bit more for what we loved doing was inspirational and very gratifying.
Aaaagh then Harry left and Chips was devastated and hello hello .. here we go again.
Oh but then along came Oddsox.
Sounds a bit naff now dunnit but Oddsox was awesome. I resumed a very old relationship with a friend called Graham Thema and boy did we hit it off creatively. There was just something about Graham’s percussion playing and his lovely close harmonies plus his dedication to original music. This was the third time things started to take off. Oddsox was born and in the tiny but thriving Leicestershire world of folk music.
I guess we were pretty big time although again we were operating on the periphery and I guess this was because we were original and contemporary … one foot in the alternative camp and one in the acoustic.. oh and several other feet in several other camps too .. we had many feet … an uncomfortable position for punters wanting to pigeon hole (as is the want of many a punter and musician).
We didn’t care. We’d use anything .. Classical, opera, folk, poetry, carpentry, bricklaying, whatever. If it felt right we’d use it and that’s how it should be.
We did some gorgeous gigs : Graham was a great entertainer too and developed some wonderfully obscure and funny little bits into our performances and the gigs were always charged with a sort of nervous energy born out of a need to go one better and to get better all the time. We made some great music and I do have some archive stuff that I will put up in the not too distant as there will be many folks who remember Oddsox with some affection and rightly so.
But Graham moved away to Americay and Oddsox (like all things) did pass.
Well this was about the time I got influenced by Roger Wilson, an amazing fiddler,g uitarist and singer songwriter from good old Leicester. He was playing some great folk music .. traditional stuff about people in struggle and stuff and it sort of resonated in me. Struck a chord (excuse the musical pun) as it were and reinforced both my musical and political leanings and direction.
Also,after all the difficulties I’d had keeping bands together, working on my own again seemed a much more viable proposition.
So that’s what I did and I began researching stories and situations that reflected the struggles in ordinary working people’s lives and setting them to my music but with a heavy emphasis on a traditional style of writing. And of course as I read and researched I began to realize the enormity of the crimes committed against my class and a very considerable anger began to grow in me as I learned and as I began to understand more about the structure of the world into which I had been born.
So I now had direction and a growing passion for the art of political song and a real desire to set a few things down in their true perspective. So I did and this is the time (990’s) that I start recording proper albums. It was the time that my second child,Jack, was born (in1991) and I was brimming with possibility and hope and passion and love .. oh yes .. yes .. Yes.
I’d recorded before but now the technology was much more accessible and my first album was born too.
’The Last Days of the Way We Were‘ was recorded by John Booth at Northfield Road in Hinckley using a vast 8 track mixer and analogue recording machine which I for one never fully understood but out of which John somehow managed to squeeze my first album and mighty proud of it I was (and still am) for all its wondrous faults and shortcomings for it has a naïve and delightful disregard for the pigeon – holers .. and I like to think that’s true of the rest of my albums (now numbering a dozen or so) that have followed in its wake.
And still they come as I learn and dream of a better world for its inhabitants and an end to the structures that ensnare and destroy the lives of so many for the sake of the rich.
Oh well, talking of money.
I have a new family and we too need a bit of money to get us through. There’s twin boys on the way by 95 and I join ‘Sharon and the Bog Bandits’ during the second synthetic Irish music invasion and God do we get some gigs. This time with my first child Nikki doing the honours on fiddle, Sharon on drums, me on bass and vocals and Robbie Murphy on guitar and vocals.
This is yet another fine band but soon reduces to the Bog Bandits after Sharon leaves. Me and Robbie whack out the rhythms and Nikki does the jigs and reels and the overall experience is of a hugely entertaining and driven rocking Celtic thing . Robbie knows all the songs and is a fine exponent of flat picked guitar for the tunes and together we work at it til it hums.
But again things fall apart and the Bog Bandits (a great name I hope you agree) go bogwards and their end is now written in the annals of O’Neils and Molly O’Grady’s where we trod the boards nightly. I can still see Robbie goading his enthusiastic audience on as they jumped and strutted to his driven version of ‘Who are You my Pretty Fair Maid’ or ‘Johnny Jump Up’.
So I’m now looking for a band setting for my songs and so Contraband is born.
I begin a very creative working relationship with Dan Britten of Melton Mowbray. Dan is a fine musician and with his help I now produce my 3rd and 4th albums (the second having been recorded in America with Gypsy reel). Dan is also working with Neil Segrott, another fine Leicester musician and together we do some lovely gigs as Contraband . However other ventures intervene and Contraband goes the way of all flesh but I continue to record with Neil who, as well as being a superb guitarist and bass player, is also a great recording engineer.
More albums follow and I also get to do a bit of work with Chris Conway, yet another great Leicester musician who has now recorded a few tracks for me and made some great contributions to some of my albums.
These days I tend to work on my own although I have some fun playing with Phil Carr (maniac djembe player) or Simon Stokes on percussion. I recently met a remarkable guitarist, musician and recording engineer, Wayne Morris and together we have produced a remarkable album, my most recent called ‘Goats are Great’. Its on the site as are all the rest and more will follow soon.
I’ve also done an album with Andy Roseby and we will no doubt be doing a few gigs over the next year or so.
Watch this space ……… Steve Cartwright. September 2013