By way of a change this week and next I will be posting extracts from Omnibus Press books that I have commissioned and edited over the years, opening with the one of which I am most proud, Tony Fletcher’s Dear Boy, his biography of Keith Moon, which has become one of our best-ever selling titles. In America this book is titled Moon: The Life & Death of a Rock Legend.
It is December 1962 and The Beachcomers, a popular local group in North West London, have placed an advert in the Harrow & Wembley Observer for a new drummer. Prospective candidates are to convene with their kits at the Conservative Hall on Lowlands Road, by Harrow-on-the Hill station, for auditions. Keith Moon, all of 16 and keen as mustard, has answered the ad.
Clyde Burns and the Beachcombers, their roots going back to the skiffle boom, were members of the lost generation of semi-professional cover bands, faithfully replicating the hits of the day without giving thought to what might make the hits of tomorrow. So polished at this craft were they that they were often billed as ‘Shadows of the Shadows,’ which for most bands in the very early Sixties was the ultimate compliment. After all, what were the Escorts [Keith’s previous band – CC], or any of the other hundreds of other youth club bands across the country, aspiring to be, if not shadows of the shadows? Who else was there to take after in the musical dark ages? And if you couldn’t be the originator, why not be the best imitation in town?
The Beachcombers were popular, too. They hadn’t made any records, but then few bands did. And though they didn’t attract publicity like Screaming Lord Sutch, they didn’t offend people either. The Beachcombers got bookings at many an army base, drill hall, pub, ballroom and community centre and what mattered was that they were always asked back. They were true semi-pros. Lead guitarist Norman Mitchener and bassist Tony Brind, who grew up on the same street in Stanmore, and rhythm guitarist John Schollar, from Preston Hill, were all apprentice draughtsmen just out of their teens. Vocalist Ron Chenery (aka Clyde Burns) came from South Harrow, was a couple of years older than the others and worked as a service engineer. These were good jobs that they all intended holding on to, but though they were only part-timers at the music game, they were fiercely dedicated ones. To this end they had recently ousted drummer Alan Roberts, who like so many of his generation had started out on a converted washboard during the skiffle craze only to be found lacking once he progressed to a full drum kit.
The Beachcombers performed a few shows with Cliff Bennett’s former drummer Ricky Winters, and would gladly have kept him, but Winters had quit the Rebel Rousers to get married and no way was his wife giving him back up to rock'n'roll so quickly. That was the problem with this game: it was wonderful while it lasted, and you played it for as long as you could, but ultimately your employer or your girlfriend got you in a corner you couldn’t back out of, and you felt obliged to give up the music and ‘settle down’. Too few people ever made it at rock'n'roll to risk sacrificing your good relationship or a steady job.
So the Beachcombers placed an ad in the local paper and that cold December night the four phantom shadows, along with their friend and occasional van driver Roger Nichols, went to the Conservative Hall hoping there was someone else in the neighbourhood who wanted the job and was good enough to do it.
Judging by the turn-out – a half-dozen young men all with their own kits – it looked as though their luck would be in. Trouble was, this little boy had turned up as well, his father acting as chaperone. How embarrassing.
– I’ve come for the audition, the boy said with great excitement at the first opportunity.
– You’re too young, replied the Beachcombers more or less in unison. Come back in a few years, one of them taunted.
The Beachcombers set up inside the hall with the first drummer they liked the look of, who put up his kit opposite the band so as to see them play, follow their chord patterns and watch their movements: being shadows of the shadows meant perfecting the choreographed walks as well as the music. But when it came to drumming, he just didn’t have the style that the Beachcombers knew they were good enough to demand. They told him they’d be in touch and went back out to the hallway. The other drummers were still there. So was the little boy.
– Come on, he said. Let me have a go. I’m good.
– We thought we told you, came the reply. You’re too young. You wouldn’t be allowed in most the places we play.
They called in another drummer instead. And it was the same thing – set up opposite the Beachcombers, watched them closely, didn’t have what it took. And still the little boy was waiting outside.
– We’ve come all this way, the least you can do is try him out, said the boy’s father, pulling rank.
The Beachcombers switched tactics.
– He’s not old enough to drive, someone now pointed out. You need transport to be in a working band.
– That’s alright, said the father. I’ll drive him. I’ll drive you all.
But that wasn’t what they meant. All the Beachcombers came from happy, stable families; they loved their parents dearly and invited them to the more prestigious local shows. But they didn’t need someone’s dad driving them around. They were adults; Ron had even done National Service. This was a men’s band.
And so it went. The next drummer, no good. Nor the next. By this time, the little boy with his unquenchable enthusiasm and refusal to take no for an answer had them intrigued. After all, the Beachcombers said to each other, it’s not like we’ve found our replacement yet. We might as well give him a try. At least he won’t think his journey’s been wasted. And you have to admit, he’s persistent.
The last drummer completed his unsatisfactory audition and still the boy was out there, hopeful.
– Come on then, they finally said, aware that they sounded like they were humoring him (and how else could you sound when you were semi-pro and a little boy wanted to join your band?). Show us what you’ve got.
Keith was inside and setting up his drums so fast it was as though they came pre-erected. The Beachcombers were impressed by that, and by the quality of the kit too: a professional quality pearl blue Premier. But what really piqued their curiosity was the way Keith set up his drums not opposite the band, as if he were auditioning, but behind them, as if he already belonged. The kid had balls, that was for sure. Now to see if he could play with them. They suggested a rock'n'roll standard, something they thought a 16 year old might know, and counted out the intro. The kid came in on the beat...
“... Like a bomb going off behind us,” as John Schollar remembered the moment with distinct clarity half a lifetime later. “We couldn’t believe so much noise was coming from this little nipper behind these drums.”
“There were no nerves,” recalled Tony Brind equally vividly. “We said, 'How about Chuck Berry, Elvis,’ whatever, and he said, 'Oh yeah, I know that,' and off he'd go, completely confident. No fluffing it.”
“He was good, he was loud,” was Norman Mitchener’s memory. “He had something in his playing. His snare work was heavy and it was drivey.”
“And we thought he was the best of the lot,” said Ron Chenery.
The Beachcombers threw a couple more songs at the boy, including the new Shadows single ‘Dance On!’ which they would be required to play next time out if they were to maintain their reputation as penumbra imitations. Keith performed it perfectly.“The next thing I remember is we were all around Norman's, having coffee with a new drummer,” says John Schollar. “His dad said, 'What about the drums?' and we said, 'Don't worry, we'll take him home.'”