Sunday 5 February 2012

Regent Sound Studios, Mick Jagger's Guitar and The Man From Decca Records

This story is about a group of us in the Spring of 1964 when, in the space of one hour, we recorded 2 tracks at the Regent Sound Studios in Denmark Street, I played Mick Jagger’s sparkling new Gretsch (Countryman?) guitar and we were discovered by the man from Decca Records! If that wasn't enough, the ending of our relationship with Decca was fairly dramatic too.

It all started in early 1964 when I was a 16 year old junior soldier at Bovington Camp in Dorset, close to where I live now. I joined up from Dublin in January ‘63 and was still very green behind the gills. I had taken up the guitar a couple of years previously but had quite recently graduated from playing with only 4 strings (requiring some creative tuning!), to using all 6 strings. Somehow I got a place in a group along with three other lads of a similar age and the army provided enough basic amplification for us to perform in the NAAFI club etc. The piano player and vocalist, and my best friend at that time, was John Hardie. Apart from being the most musically accomplished among us, John had a brother Sam (called Keith by the family) who played piano with King Size Taylor and the Dominoes and was right in the midst of the Merseybeat scene. Sam had done the lot, including the Cavern and the Star Club in Hamburg, and the Hardie house had photos on the walls of him with Gene Vincent, Little Richard and various American and British artistes. John talked very casually about times when Cilla, Gerry Marsden and other top performers of the day had rehearsed in his front room, he even had a Dad who worked in a record shop in Crosby!

Our group was called The Rythmn Runners - yes, it was even misspelt on the bass drum! I played lead on an anonymous acoustic guitar with a pickup in the hole and shared the singing. Rhythm was played by Gray Stockton who had a proper electric Watkins guitar, very snazzy in it’s day. Gray's claim to fame was managing to hide his gravity-defying quiff under his beret away from the military authorities for most of the time he was in training! The drummer, Paul Cantwell, was quiet and unassuming, spoke like a cockney and was a reliably good drummer. We didn’t have a bass player most of the time but John would play bass if the venue didn’t have a piano.
Publicity Shot on a Bad Hair Day
Cassie lived in the London suburbs (Richmond?) and it was his dad who had some connection with Regent Sound Studios. He made the arrangements for us to have one hour of studio time on a Saturday afternoon sometime in the spring of 1964 for the sum of £30, equivalent to 2- 3 weeks pay in those days. There was no specific reason for doing the recording, it was just something we really wanted to do and there were no way of recording at home at that time.

What we didn’t know until we went up to stay with Paul on the Friday was that the Rolling Stones used the studio for their recordings for Decca at that time, something that proved to be a godsend later on. How he got them, I’ve no idea, but Paul had a slack handful of reject Rolling Stones recordings! They were on acetate disks about the size of a 45 record but thicker and heavier. He played his amazing collection to us as we sat in his front room mesmerised. Here was one of the very top groups of the day in the process of producing some of the most exciting and iconic R&B music tracks ever recorded and we had a private insight into their world. We thought nothing less of them when we heard mistakes or bum notes because we knew how fantastic the final outcome would be. We also knew very well that they were in a totally different league to us. The one track that has stayed in my memory ever since was Route 66 which was full of all the great excitement and feel that was loved about the Stone’s music, but this version speeded up noticeably in the middle. I have no idea who has those acetates now but I would have thought a collector would give their eye teeth for them? It is fair to say that if nothing else had taken place that weekend I would have been very happy just hearing those recordings, I was blown away. After all, we played their songs in our repertoire and Keith Richard was top of my list of guitar heroes.

As it was, being young and naive, and in London for the very first time, we went into town that evening, witnessed the sights and sounds of Soho and wandered the streets all night until the tube opened at some ungodly hour in the morning to take us back for a few hours sleep! And what a day we had ahead of us.
Regent Sound Studios in 2009

Early on the Saturday afternoon we lugged our couple of amps and the drum kit into the very small, but thrilling, Regent Sound Studios. I recall the small outer waiting room, a fairly small studio with egg boxes on the walls and a control room somewhere at the back. It was some relief to find there was a piano, but I imagine most studios must have had a piano in those days before keyboards became portable. There were two men running the place, one took charge as both engineer and producer, the other stayed quietly in the background. We hoped to record two songs of our own, so we cracked on with setting up and tuning, after all, an hour was pushing it – even before I started breaking strings! Playing lead on an acoustic meant that strings were a constant problem for me. I was learning the art of attacking strings and bending notes and, although my fingers were getting the knack of it, the bridge on my guitar wasn’t having any of it. If the G didn’t break, it was the top E.

The A Side (sounds quaint now) was “That Girl’s No Good”, a very strong Beatle..ish ballad which John had written and was singing the main vocal on. Any remaining time was to be spent on “That’s Love”, a more upbeat song of mine. Not only did I have to sing the lead vocal, I also had to play a lead guitar break in the middle, and there was no time for retakes. Before we got anywhere near that point, the first E string broke and with shaking hands I put my last one on and prayed. As is the way of things, just as we got ready for That’s Love, the second, and last, E string broke.

The producer was fantastic. Knowing we were in trouble and about to forfeit studio time, he came to our assistance. With only a little hesitation, he took us to a store room in the back which was full of amps, drums and guitar cases and informed us that the gear belonged to the Rolling Stones. He opened a guitar case containing a pale green Gretsch, which he said was Mick Jagger's, and told us not to tell anyone. At first I didn’t want to even touch it, I was completely in awe. It looked brand spanking new, shone like you wouldn’t believe and seemed just too precious to play. It was probably a good thing at that point that we didn’t have time to mess about so I put it on and tried to figure out the controls. I was in some sort of heaven for the next 15 minutes and we did the song in two takes. Take 1 was for the actual recording, Take 2 the producer had us standing around around a mic adding hand-claps! We’d done it!! We had actually managed to load the gear in, set it up, record two songs and get the gear out again, all in an hour. I still have one of the very few acetate copies that were produced and I’m very proud of it. The songs stand up very well and are typical of their day but, not surprisingly, each has a minor mistake although I doubt most people wouldn’t even notice them? And the day was far from over......

Links to the songs: 

As we loaded the gear out the front Shaw Taylor (TV presenter) and Janie Marden (renowned jazz singer of the time), were waiting to go in. As we were getting ready to leave, the man who had been so quiet in the background announced that he was from Decca and was very interested in the group! We were sufficiently wordly-wise and cynical to be highly suspicious of this approach but it soon became obvious that he was quite genuine. Off we went to one of the local coffee shops where he talked to us for, it seemed like, hours about our chances of making it in the pop world with Decca’s backing. Between that discussion and subsequent correspondence between Decca and the Army, it was agreed that someone from Decca was to come to Bovington to hear us playing live. If that went well, they were going to put us on the bottom of a touring bill through our long summer leave period and, if that went well, we were on our way to stardom! I can’t recall if we had much say in the matter but it was arranged that we would play a concert in the NAAFI club on the afternoon of a Summer Open Day. The parents and relatives of the junior leaders were somehow informed of this and a Decca A&R man could use the occasion to decide if we had it in us to go on the road. Needless to say my military ambitions, limited as they were at the time, took an immediate back seat to my ambitions to be a pop star. Things went downhill so fast that in the interim period I got myself demoted from the lofty rank of Junior Lance Corporal to the lowly, but more accurate, rank of Junior Trooper. I can't say I was bothered.

The day came and the NAAFI club was packed with (seemingly very old) Mums, Dads, Aunties, Uncles etc. with just a spattering of teenagers. They sat in rows looking expectantly at four very young teenagers who were close to terminal stage fright, whilst at the back of the room, at the end of the central aisle, sat the man from Decca. He was sharply suited with a briefcase on the floor beside him and was accompanied by an eye-poppingly gorgeous young lady who’s role seemed to be to sit there looking fantastic, something she achieved in spades. Off we went with our two amps - one might have been a Selmer, no idea what the other was - into which were plugged 2 guitars and two mics. (Very few groups had PA systems in those days, more typically mics were plugged into a spare channel of an instrument amp.) John sat at the NAAFI piano with a mic stand coming up between his legs, I was to his left with a mic on a stand, and Greg was to my left. Paul was the lucky one, he was able to hide behind the rest of us – what I would have given to be the drummer!
In spite of the complete lack of atmosphere and the quizzical looks of the adult audience (“it's too loud”, “I can't hear the words” etc..), it was going OK when, right in the middle of a song, my first string broke. It is very difficult to thread a string through the hole in a machine head with a room full of old people (not to mention the man from Decca) staring at you wondering why your hands, and whole body, are shaking like someone in a fit, but I got through it. In fact I got through the other three breakages as well and we were doing OK until John decided to help Gray tune his guitar. Gray was a good player but found guitar tuning very difficult, it was often quicker to do the tuning for him than listen to him poncing about, especially on this occasion. Even though we all knew that everything was plugged into everything else, when John chose to hold onto his mic stand and reach across to touch Gray’s guitar at the same time, I’m sure he couldn’t have foreseen the outcome. All the same, it was quite dramatic. There was a flash and John dropped to the deck pole-axed!

Our military training kicked in quickly and we started to panic. In the hullabaloo I was nudging John with my shoe (some might call it kicking) whilst at the same time reminding him forcefully that he needed to get up because the man from Decca was still looking on expectantly. Thankfully, someone had the presence of mind to phone the emergency services. As the medics took John away in the ambulance, the Mums and Dads drifted off muttering as they left. The man from Decca thanked us but, in words that he probably thought were kind, made it clear that he didn’t think we were ready for stardom just yet. He did say he would see if there was anyone interested in buying the songs. That was the last we ever heard from him.

We weren’t aware at the time but John had a bit of a heart history and the shock could have been more serious than it was. Thankfully, he was back with us a few days later. In our individual ways, we all had to come to terms with the fact that we had failed to impress on the day. It was not only a big knock to our collective confidence, we were very aware that an opportunity had been missed that was most unlikely to ever be repeated. I dare say the camaraderie of military life will have helped enormously with that process and what's more we didn’t really have too much time to mope because the sergeants were still shouting and swearing at us (their way of showing affection and understanding), so we had to knuckle down to the business of trying to be soldiers again. Shortly after all this I saw the Stones in concert at Bournemouth Winter Gardens but the green Gretsch didn't make an appearance. Nonetheless, it was one of the most fantastic shows I've ever seen.

During the next 9 months we all went separate ways to our adult units. I was lucky and joined a regiment that supported and encouraged me in forming and equipping groups throughout my military career, enabling me to play pop, heavy rock and then modern country music in a variety of group configurations. After the army I became an operations manager at a local venue and was then very fortunate to become a theatre manager. I still play in public once in a while but concentrate on song writing and recording at home now. I’ve had some degree of success, coming very close to getting songs on Joe Brown’s Nashville session, dipping out at the eleventh hour. As most people in my situation will recognise, it is easy to lose self-confidence, so I was over the moon to be invited to take part in a show on BBC Local Radio on Christmas Day 2011 with a live chat and an airing of my latest song. I still get a thrill out of selling even 10 of my own CDs and I have no thoughts of giving up on the search for success somewhere in music.

It’s a while now since I heard from John but as far as I know he still plays and sings somewhere in the Liverpool area while working a day job. I have just got in touch with Paul but no luck tracing Gray. But on a recent visit to the West End for a show, my wife and I happened upon Regent Sound Studios and the memories came flooding back. It still looks much the same from the outside but is a guitar shop now – very fitting, it should never be anything else. Plaques on the wall testify to it’s place in the history of the Rolling Stones yet, strangely, there is nothing to commemorate the Rythmn Runners!

I’m quite certain that the other members of the group share the same fond memories of that day in 1964 when our lives changed, if only for a few months. Although we will never know, we probably had the best of all outcomes; we never did have to find out if we could hack it in the music industry, let alone if we were good enough. We never had to suffer disappointment on the scale of those who become really famous for just a short time. I often wonder how it must feel to crash as fast as some pop acts do, how people cope when the phone stops ringing and no one wants to know you any more, it must be tough. By the same token, what if I hadn’t broken all those strings and what if John had been a bit more health & safety conscious? As I've said, we'll never know.

If I have a real regret it is not being able to verify ownership of the pale green Gretsch guitar. It is extremely rare to see pictures of Mick Jagger playing a guitar, and he’s not returning my calls now that I’m not famous.......

Bob Bentley

March 2012

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