Sunday, 12 March 2017

there was this bloke

all those songs that I sang you,
all forgotten, all in vain . . . 

I've just learned of the death of Derek Brimstone, a true gentleman and a great musician. Who? Well, Derek Brimstone was a very influential guy, let me tell you. Okay, we're not talking of the influence of a David Bowie here but for many of us, he was a legend. An unsung hero.

Way back last century, somewhere about 1970 I think, I was introduced to folk music through the wonderful vehicle of the Folk Club. They still exist today but nothing like in the numbers or quite like them as they were then. Recently, Martin Simpson has been quoted as saying that the definition of folk music is, "music that accompanies a raffle", and honestly I can't really argue against that! Sometimes it seemed that the whole point of the evening at a folk club was to buy a ticket and hope (or not, depending on the prize!) that you've won. I won once. I won an album in St Ives, Cornwall at the folk night - typically a Sunday - held at the local disco venue, Mr Peggoty's. Yes, sadly, I can still remember it. This was the summer of 1972 when as an end to school after our exams we went on holiday together. It was a bit like today except we didn't go to Ibiza to get out of our skulls on slammers, have wild sex and get horrendous sunstroke. No, we hired a cottage and went to Wimpy, the Chippie and the local pub and behaved like the nicely brought up grammar school kids we all were. The most obnoxious we ever got was singing the chorus of Angel Delight* by Fairport Convention (too loudly - the owners of the cottage lived next door!) You had to be there, I guess. It was so last century.

Anyway, I can't remember the album I won. Still, we were so well served by folk clubs back then. As a working class kid who managed somehow to get in to the local grammar school, I got to meet people from other places and castes, er, people wealthier than me (not difficult). A few of these came from Knebworth - the sort of place that nowadays would probably be fenced off from Stevenage and most likely would be a "gated community". My later best friend from there was the son of a bank manager. Barclays! Blimey, look at their ethical record for the early 1970s!

Anyway, they had a folk club in Knebworth and, as it was easy to get a train there and jump off as it slowed down into the village station, we didn't even have to pay to get there. It probably cost about 30 pence or so to get in to the club. The type of acts we got to see was quite formidable really but the late, great Mr Brimstone was one of the first acts I got to see there.

He already seemed old then but was actually in his early forties. He played an old Gibson guitar with an amazing style. Having started going to gigs about this time, I was used to seeing Prog players like Steve Hackett and Dave Gilmour but this was an old guy playing very flash filigrees of notes whilst singing in a Cockney accent. Not only that, but he was absolutely hilarious! The jokes he told - you have to remember we had pretty good attention spans in those days - were long, rambling and cryingly funny. Several of his better jokes are immortalized on his album Very Good Time, where the songs are interspersed with live jokes. Not only this, but he also sang great songs. I didn't know it at the time but he chose songs by John Martyn, Michael Chapman and the Incredible String Band as well as old Blues numbers.On top of this, he also played guitar and banjo in a remarkable style: clawhammer. This was a style developed by Blues and Country musicians and was well-known by older teenagers who had been weaned on Bert Jansch albums but to some of us (younger ones) this was all a revelation. Fingerpicking. This meant that you didn't just strum your guitar loudly with a plectrum, scratching the top of your five quid plywood box willy-nilly, oh no: you could delicately tickle the strings and make it sound like - if you shut your eyes - like two players playing badly at the same time instead of just one. Marvellous.

Through the fuggy atmosphere of Embassy Regals, No 6 and the stickiness underfoot of those backrooms of pubs and village halls we learnt to sing along to "the chorr-arse" and laugh to some very dirty jokes. It was a real eye-opener to be part of this movement. These were the middle days of the folk club movement, by the late 70s/early 80s the clubs were dying on their arses. It was a time when good folk club acts could start to move out into the mainstream.

Whilst everyone else was trying to move out of the circuit to earn a better living, Richard Thompson had left the World tour circuit afforded to him by being a member of Fairport Convention to appear in those very clubs, whilst their main rival, Steeleye Span, were moving into the world of tv and contract riders. I'm guessing that their riders included dusky maidens and glasses of mead.  Still, in 1976 Steeleye weren't quite the World-conquering act they were later to (briefly) become. So, they appeared at the Gordon Craig Theatre in Stevenage. The lineup was Steeleye, preceded by Mr B and a very young Martin Simpson before him. Derek Brimstone was also, as a great raconteur, the compere for the tour. So, not only did he do a short set himself, but he introduced a very young Mr Simpson too. Meanwhile, the folk world provided gigs and festivals that constantly produced wonderful to-die-for lineups that still, sometimes, astonish me.

I saw Derek Brimstone live many, many times at various folk clubs and festivals. He was often the host as well as performer but he was always great entertainment. That leads me on to his skills as a storyteller. A master joke-teller in the Dave Allen field. Let's face it, Mr B never EVER got the recognition for being such a great comedian. We watched all those comedians on tv in the 1970s that the BBC thought we should. Occasionally they'd put a folk musician on such as Richard Digance, Mike Harding, Jasper Carrot or Mike Harding. But nobody bothered with Derek B. He wasn't as rude as them but, to be honest, he was funnier. Now, I always thought Mr J C was the least funny of those but he became the most well-known (so what does that tell us?) but poor old Tony Capstick was better known for being the policeman in Last Of The Summer Wine rather than as one of the funniest dirty-joke tellers and great unaccompanied traditional folk singers of the seventies. This is the guy who once started a gig by saying, "I'll start off a bit dirty then go out in a blaze of filth" and then proceeded to do exactly that.

The last time I saw Derek Brimstone must have been a good ten or more years ago. He appeared at the Red Lion in Manningtree as part of a double bill with Michael Chapman. Now, like many people I thought that they'd gigged together often, given their friendship. However, it seemed that they'd never played together on the same bill. They were wonderful that night. There was a mutual admiration and we were all (the sold-out audience) blown away. It was a fantastic gig.

What I haven't mentioned is the fact that sometimes my friends and I would come home from the pub, most likely mid-week, and listen to the albums. Oh yes, we'd jump the serious songs but listen to the jokes. We'd line up the Mike Harding, Bill Barclay and Capstick albums which my parents would be only too happy to sit back and listen to. Well, we had to make our own amusement in those Pre-internet, less than four station tv days. We'd all sit back and laugh and (this may seem sad nowadays) but be happy to regurgitate the jokes we'd learnt at parties. I have still occasionally attempted to tell some of DB's jokes over recent years. However, with the loss of tolerance and lack of attention nowadays, I've noticed that trying to tell a shaggy dog story must be an impossible task.

Oh well, I talk of time past and time passing. All I do know is that Derek Brimstone was a major influence in my young life. What few bits I can glean from the internet in his passing is that many others felt something similar.

God bless you Derek Brimstone, you were a gentleman and a very funny guy. I loved the story about how you drove the Rev Gary Davis around the UK in the sixties ("he could drive himself, but he kept bumping into things") and you made me realise that there was far more to music than young proggie guys flashing about with their Gibson guitars, Marshall stacks and fuzz pedals.

At least you managed to get to your mid-80s and were aware that you gave so much joy to many people. I checked out the few comments on the internet and you were well liked. Loved, actually.

That's not a bad life.

Derek Brimstone 1932 - 2017. RIP

*Try listening to it and imagine, if you will, sixteen year old naive kids singing it!


Andy Wright said...

Beautifully written piece Dave. I still have one of his cassettes!! As you say a wonderful performer and much underrated.RIP Mr.B.

Dave Leeke said...

Thank you, Andy. Yes, you were there at Knebworth and - I've just remembered the gig downstairs at Bowes Lyon. Many others. He was a great entertainer, one of the best.

Brendini said...

I was totally unaware of this. Nice bit of writing there, Dave. I only saw him twice in my lifetime, both at the Talisman.
"I don't dance with children."
"Oh, sorry! I didn't know you were pregnant!"

Dave Leeke said...

Cheers, Brendan. Yes, the Talisman (or Hitchin Folk Club in its many disguises) was a wonderful place to see guys like him. I wish I'd bought his autobiography when I could have a few years ago. Unfortunately his website seems to have disappeared.