I’d known Chris Halstead since we were four. I still know him today. He was always head and shoulders taller than me and we fought like cat and dog throughout infant school, primary school and secondary school. I never really knew why and I bet he doesn’t either. Not really.
We travelled by train together with a couple of other friends to secondary school in Leeds. He and I didn’t enjoy the school, the other two seemed to breeze through it. One day Chris let it slip that he was in a band. We stopped arguing that day because he now had something I badly wanted. My reasoning was simple, if Chris could be in a band then so could I.
I had no reason to think like this, I didn’t know if he was a talented musician or not. I didn’t know anything about the band but I wanted in.
The secondary school we went to was St Michael’s College in Leeds, a catholic grammar school previously run by Jesuit priests and just handed over to lay control. We both had to pass examinations to get there, Chris through the 11 plus exam and me through some novel idea called the Thorn scheme where your work was assessed over an academic year. I passed this with my best mate Steve and along with Chris and Gerard we set off in our short pants to have our lives changed, just perhaps not in the way everyone else expected.
The school set high academic standards, you were expected to succeed. It was an all boys school and in the mid to late 60s was filled with over 700 of Yorkshire’s finest young minds. OK, maybe I’m stretching things there but there’s no doubt there were some talented lads at the school.
From the outside the school looked like Colditz, the highest security Nazi prisoner of war camp that was housed in an imposing castle. If you remember the BBC television series you’ll know what I mean. The building was black from the soot of industrial Leeds and about as inviting as a boil on the end of your nose. My parents had decided that I had to have a grammar school education and I had a choice between St Michael’s and a similar school in Bradford, St Bede’s if I remember correctly.
I don’t know if you know Leeds and Bradford, especially in the mid 60s. To be honest neither was a particularly wonderful place but to my untrained eyes Leeds was head and shoulders above Bradford. Both my Mum and Dad grew up around Bradford and knew it well, what little of it I knew I couldn’t stand. In fact I knew even less about Leeds but based on the fact that it wasn’t Bradford it was good enough for me.
When I went to St Michael’s for a look around months before I was accepted it didn’t faze me and to be honest it didn’t over impress me either. The first day as a pupil changed that completely. In keeping with the best catholic tradition fear was used overwhelmingly. Fear of failure, fear of authority, fear of religion, fear of the bigger boys and fear of many of your class mates. Corporal punishment may have been banned the year before we arrived but it was replaced by a much more sinister and all pervading punishment, constant fear.
My reaction was to react against it. I kicked against it virtually from the off. On the very first day I picked a fight with another boy. It was semi-deliberate on my part, I was laying down a marker, I wasn’t going to get bullied and my way of dealing with that perceived threat was to confront it head on. We never actually came to blows which was probably for the best as Mick Deary turned out to be one the hardest kids in the school and would have almost certainly battered me.
I railed internally against the unfairness I saw everywhere, from vindictive 6th form prefects who handed out ‘punishments’ like confetti because, well, because they could, to the teachers, many of whom strutted around in graduate gowns presumably believing they looked like birds of prey. In fact to my eyes they just looked daft and what they seemed to think engendered some sort of authority and awe simply marked them out as pillocks.
Although the head was now a lay person his right hand man was a Jesuit who, it seemed to me and many others, had taken a vow of sadism along with his holy orders. Being sent to see ‘Sister’ as he was nicknamed was not something you took lightly because it was certain it wasn’t going to go well for you no matter how innocent of the crime you were or how trifling the misdemeanour.
I had an encounter with him following a punishment handed out by a prefect. This 6th form bully had given me a punishment of three pages on Foot and Mouth which was sweeping the land at the time. I drew three pages of cartoons on the basis he wasn’t specific what the three pages had to contain. Sister took the bully’s side and refused to accept what I was convinced was my reasonable argument that if the bully couldn’t be specific about exactly what he wanted from me I was free to deliver what I wanted. After a stern and predictable lecture I had to write five pages in detention the following day and hand it to Sister himself. So much for justice. Imagine my surprise when overnight my handwriting had become unusually large, so I did continue the petty rebellion in answer to their petty rules.
As I progressed through the years and grew more and more rebellious there were just two things that kept me sane, Leeds United and music. Leeds United were, at the time, probably the best team in Europe and although their trophy haul doesn’t prove this claim seeing them play every other week was hugely convincing. Most of the boys at the school were Leeds fans and I arrived in Leeds just as Don Revie’s Leeds United arrived in the then First Division. I was besotted with them and I still am.
Music was my other love. Not that I had any talent in that direction, I couldn’t even play an instrument to any sort of competent level, but I had grown up with The Beatles and they were entering their most creative phase. Before my first year of secondary school turned into year two they released Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
It’s impossible to explain just what impact Sgt Pepper had if you weren’t around in 1967. Following on from the game changing Revolver album Britain’s The Beatles were about to establish their total musical superiority over the rest of the pop world, or so it seemed. But it wasn’t just the music, as awe inspiring as that was. It was coupled with a culture change of seismic proportions. There was long hair, bells, kaftans, beads and all manner of exotic finery. Mini skirts, bell bottoms, gaudy colours and even, whisper it, drugs that could alter your state of mind.
Not all of these changes were massively evident in Leeds and were certainly not visible in the dour confines of St Michael’s. Those who ran the school seemed to immediately man the barricades against these unholy intrusions that were surely sent to corrupt the impressionable young minds they had under their control.
It was widely trumpeted that pop music was going to change the world and whilst that might have turned out to be somewhat debateable it certainly changed my world. Back then you either listened to the radio or listened to records. That was it. I remember going to a party at primary school the day Can’t Buy Me Love came out. It was played over and over again until we all knew the words by heart. It’s impossible to convey the shear excitement and delight we had in the release of a new Beatles single. It was like being visited by the gods. As a Paul Simon lyric says ‘every generation throws a hero up the pop charts’, well my generation had The Beatles and frankly it doesn’t get any better than that. In their wake came some of the greatest bands of all time, bands like The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, an entire invasion of British bands who set out across the world and established the UK as major force in popular music that still continues to this day.
The love of music gripped an incredible number of my fellow pupils. Most just listened, but a disproportionate percentage actually started playing an instrument. Most of us were shockingly bad but several were really talented. For example, Mark Uttley was in the National Youth Orchestra and Gerry McLoughlin turned out to be one of the best guitarists I’ve ever heard. I don’t know where Mark is now but Gerry still plays in his band The Removal Men, mainly around Stockport.
By the time we all got to the 5th year I was trying to play guitar. And now Chris was in a band. The stars had aligned. I engineered an invite to one of their rehearsals. I packed my nylon strung acoustic into it’s embarrassing carry bag and headed off to Ben Rhydding and Chris’s house. To my shock not only did he have a fellow guitarist called Vaughan but there were three girls (or should I say young women) Liz, Theresa and Judith who were also there.
Chris and Vaughan both had steel strung acoustic guitars (just imagine my envy). Both were, to my ears, very proficient and Vaughan especially could also play an amazing collection of other instruments. The girls, well they were girls. Having spent five years in an all boys school girls were from another planet. I was so out of my comfort zone it was untrue. Still, they all seemed to be having a good time playing distinctly folk orientated music. Vaughan had written some songs and they played them to me as well.
I unpacked my shoddy guitar and tried to join in but I was way behind them in ability. If I was ever going to get anywhere with this lot I had to up my game – big style. This was the only gig on offer and I was determined not to miss out on the fun.
(Picture: St Michael’s College, Leeds in the 1960s)