University challenges (part 1) (originally posted 25/8/13)

By ProgBlog, Apr 20 2014 12:41PM

I had the best hi-fi system in my hall of residence. I’d worked at the steel mill in Barrow over the summer between school and university and decided that I’d invest in separate components to take to university with me. A trip to the electrical and electronics retailer Comet relieved me of my hard earned cash, and I emerged with a Pioneer turntable, an Amstrad 30 watt amplifier and a pair of Celestion speakers. This equipment was transported down to Kent by (nationalised) road freight in an old trunk. I somehow managed to carry a suitcase with clothes, my albums, my bass and my bass amp on the train. It wasn’t too long before I discovered that Amstrad was a sub-standard brand and at the end of my first year I sold the amp to a friend and bought a Technics receiver from one of the many electronic shops along Tottenham Court Road.

My hall of residence was a grade II listed building, and between 1811 and 1822 it was the country home of the Foreign Secretary Viscount Castlereagh, who committed suicide there by cutting his throat with a penknife. When it was bought by Goldsmiths’ in 1939 they changed the name from Wollet Hall to Loring Hall. In the late 70s and early 80s it was not uncommon to have to share a room, especially in halls that weren’t purpose built for students. My original room-mate turned out to be pretty obnoxious. I had the foresight (and a brother and sister already at uni) to take some essentials with me, including my own mug which bore the imprint of a large bold B, for Baz. Returning from a full day of lectures and practicals (I did a joint Botany/Zoology BSc with Geology as a first year option) my mug was not in the place I’d left it, but was instead in the hand of my room-mate, a History student with time on his hands who also went under the initial ‘B’. An appeal to the head of hall resulted in a bit of a reshuffle: The other B ended up sharing with Neil Beckman and his place was taken by Jim Knipe, who up until that time had been sleeping on the library floor.

Jim was also into prog, having previously seen the penultimate UK performance of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis at the Birmingham Hippodrome on May 1st 1975 and the ‘A Trick of the Tail’ tour at the Bingley Hall in Stafford. He too was doing Botany/Zoology, so though we attended college at the same time and were back at hall at the same time, the issue of playing music that your room-mate didn’t like didn’t arise. My portion of the room was decorated with Dark Side of the Moon posters and the poster from Chris Squire’s Fish out of Water, plus some Tolkien drawings from an old calendar. The kitchen was in the basement so Jim and I invested in our own kettle. Up until then I’d preferred to drink tea, but investing in some decent instant coffee (bought from the sadly now defunct local International supermarket) converted me into a coffee fiend – but only if the coffee was palatable. The prospect of a semi-decent hot beverage and a generic International bourbon biscuit was often sufficient to attract friends, who would then be subjected to a barrage of prog. Neil Beckman would visit frequently and request Wish You Were Here. In the two years I spent at Loring I got through three copies of WYWH. I also taught Beckman how to play the melody leading up to Steve Hackett’s guitar solo from Firth of Fifth on my bass. He would sit with the instrument on his knee and vocalize each note as he hit the strings.

Bexley was the nearest town, a ten minute walk north east along the North Cray Road. This was where the International supermarket was, but other retail outlets of interest were a photography shop, the newsagent (for The Guardian), a small but well-stocked book shop, and Elpees, a small independent record store. There were also branches of Elpees in Welling and Orpington, all of which I believe have now been turned into trendy sandwich bars (or equivalent.) But Elpees in Bexley was a revelation: they stocked current vinyl and even had reduced price albums that had a small hole punched through the cover. My vinyl copy of USA by King Crimson bought there in 1979 has a hole punched just off centre, so that it goes through the cover, the inner sleeve and the Polydor label on the vinyl itself; Feels Good to Me, also bought there in 1979 has two small punch holes just off centre. The holes (sometimes cuts) gave the name ‘cut outs’ to these items. They were slow selling records that had been returned to the record company by a retailer, subsequently bought by a third party at a reduced cost (they weren’t selling well anyway) and put back into record stores where they were sold at a discounted price. During the late 70s it is hardly surprising that albums by prog acts were slow selling and ended up as cut outs.

I still wasn’t a big buyer of records; living on a grant made money really tight and though I’d make a weekly trip up to the West End and flick through the racks of vinyl in Virgin, HMV, Our Price or one of the more obscure retailers, I was still fairly closed-minded and reluctant to try something outside my experience. At that time Virgin Records was undergoing a change. The first Virgin store I’d been to was in Leeds in 1975 or 76 and it had the feel of an independent store; Virgin Megastore opened on the corner of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road in 1979 and though there were some good deals such as Livestock by Brand X, a cut out bought for £2.49 in August 1981, most of the stock was getting on for full price.

The demise of prog bands meant that I didn’t go to many concerts, though when I heard that Yes were going to play at Wembley Arena I had to seek out a ticket, whatever the cost. Jim agreed to attend and tickets were acquired from one of the many ticket agencies that were dotted around Shaftesbury Avenue. This was my first gig in London and one of the best I’ve ever attended - it was the Tormarto tour and Yes played on their revolving stage in the centre of the Arena. We went to see the matinee show which was broadcast on BBC radio, and the recording of Don’t Kill the Whale that appears on Yesshows was from that particular concert. We somehow ended up with really good seats, just off-centre and close to the front of the upper tier on the south side. When Jon Anderson introduced Starship Trooper, “this is for all you starship troopers out there” I thought he was speaking directly to me.

Most of my forays into culture involved the theatre. The student discount on theatre tickets allowed me to see a fair amount of cut-price Shakespeare, Stoppard and Brecht and in my first year I only managed two proper gigs, the Yes gig at Wembley in October 1978 and UK at Imperial College in March 1979. That South Kensington show is referenced in my review of UK at Under the Bridge.

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