The record’s an instrumental called Grow Your Own. It’s a Small Faces b-side from some time around ’65 I think. Back at the old alma mater, Miles used to play it to death. We used to sit in his room in hall, getting dragged into its brilliance, playing it as loudly as possible until we got complaints. I’ve had complaints about the volume of my music all my life. I suppose I always will.
Right now, the majestic Hammond organ, courtesy of one Ian McLagan, is coming out of the speaker that’s next to me, swirling round the club, enveloping us in its goodness. It’s dark in here, with a low ceiling, and the flecks from the mirror ball are dancing off the wall. There are some lava lamps on a table on the side and a portrait of Marlene Dietrich on the wall opposite, the one with her in a top hat, smoking a filter tip. I keep glancing at it. It draws me to it.
So, what’s happening and where are we? Let’s go back to this afternoon. There’s me sauntering through town, down the high street, looking in the shop windows for anything I might want to buy, and a vision I know well comes towards me, in the middle of the road. I don’t have to think twice about who it is. Perched on his gleaming white Vespa, is a personage known to the younger, more clued-up residents of the town, and beyond, as Johnny Ska. He has his shades on, as always, and he stops by the kerb, his face grinning like a summer day.
What you up to, he says. To which I reply not a huge amount, just kicking round town and checking stuff out, like I’ve done most days for the last few months. He proceeds to ask me how I fancy taking a trip tonight to a club in the city centre. It’s called Shotgun and is just our sort of vibe, he says, the sort of music we’d play all day and all night if we could get away with it, the clientele sporting the sort of clobber we’d wear for the rest of our lives. I smile and tell him I’m up for it. He knew that, anyway. Why would I not be? Meet him at the station at eight, he says. We’ll catch a train, hang round for a bit in the local histories and then head to the club.
This certainly puts a spring in my step, a smile on my funky little boat race. I don’t hang round town for long. I’ve lost the inclination. I head to the cashpoint, take out enough funds for the night ahead and then make my way home. A long soak in the bath later and I’m showered and shaved and dressing in my choicest garments, complete with a silk Tootal scarf, navy with white spots, with my usual uplifting, soulful soundtrack for company, before I’m on my way out of the house.
They’re all there when I get to the station. As well as Johnny Ska, there are a few of the others, all appropriately spruced up like yours truly. Shotgun’s current home is a club called The Void which is known as a pretty happening kind of place. It is in the nearest city to us, one you’ll have heard of though not necessarily paid a visit. We need to get a train there and kip down on the station on the way home, that’s unless we’re feeling flush and want to fork out for a taxi. I can’t see the latter happening. Knowing us lot, we’ll be in one of three places at the end of the night – holed up in a late-night café drinking black coffees, ensconced in the luxurious boudoir of someone we happen to meet along the way, or enjoying the delights of a bench at the station. I don’t know which I’d put my money on. I really don’t. It could be any of them. But that’s all for the future. There’s a night ahead before all that.
We get our tickets and mill around on the platform, until the local cross-country train chugs along the track. When we get on, we take over a carriage, me sitting in the corner, Johnny Ska opposite, one boy refusing to sit down in case he creases his trousers. He stands there, in the corner of the carriage, exchanging words of wisdom with the rest of us, as the train makes its way through the country villages and into the centre of this provincial city.
The train comes to a slow stop and we open the door and we’re off, like the advance party of an invading army, undercover and checking the scene out for what thrills are in the offing. The light nights of spring are upon us at last and it adds a positive feel to the moment that we’ve lacked in the dark days of winter. We head straight to the watering hole of Johnny Ska’s choice, a bar called The Helsinki, which is wall-to-wall hepcats and hip kids and a vibe of jazz that’s emanating from the speakers. It fits the mood of the place completely. We order cans of Red Stripe and stand around in our slim-fitting strides and loafers and desert boots, button-downs and polo shirts, shooting the breeze and putting the world to rights as we compare the merits of one obscure sixties b-side with another, as we’re apt to do at times like this. After letting the nectar of a few ice-cold cans run down our throats, we’re ready to head for our intended destination.
It’s dark now. Perfect for our nocturnal ramblings. We head through the streets, following our leader. Johnny Ska knows where he’s going as, I imagine, do some of the others. For me, it’s a first. I’m happy to be shown the way by the gang I’ve become a part of since I returned last summer from the depths of liberals arts academia.
The walk takes about five minutes. Then we turn into a side street and it’s ahead of us, a neon sign with “Void” looking at you in the face. There’s a short queue but, a few minutes later, we’re paying our money and heading down some steps that lead into the club. “Shotgun,” it says on a poster on the wall. “Soul, blues, ska, freakbeat, boogaloo.” Perfect, I’m thinking.
When we get into the club proper, it comes up to expectations. It’s small down here, which is just the way we want it. They sometimes have bands on. But not tonight. This is a pure club night. I’m impressed with what I see, boys with sculpted barnets, in Henley tops and button-downs, on the dancefloor, grooving around to some perfect blue beat that’s blasting out of the speakers and emanating its heavenly beauty. Next to them is a group of equally sartorial young ladies who are throwing their hair about and thrusting their hips to the music. I feel totally at home here. It’s like an underground society of like-minded brethren, who have never met before and probably never will again but know each other intimately and could tell you our musical, literary and sartorial preferences without thinking about it. That’s what it’s all about, I suppose. A key to a secret world that’s yours and yours alone. No one else would understand.
We head for the bar and buy more Red Stripes, all as ice-cold as they were earlier. We stand around for a short while, taking it in, before making a move to dance. And it’s at that point that those Small Faces boys put in an appearance and my favourite instrumental b-side starts to blast out of the speakers in our direction. It puts another smile on my face. Of course, it does.
So that’s where you find us at the present moment of the midnight hour, in the middle of this dancefloor, taking in the vibes of Grow Your Own. I don’t know what the rest of the night holds. But, for now, I’m not in the slightest bit bothered. I’m just moving to the music, letting my mind float away and take in the mood, glancing at Marlene from time to time in all her brilliance. The lights are flashing and the bass is pumping and the glorious Hammond organ’s taking me away. This time tomorrow, we’ll be back in our small town and all the ambience it offers. For now, we’re surrounded by the beautiful people, being taken off somewhere else, on a magic carpet ride to subterranean heaven. I’m going to live it while I can.