It is 1965, and Ernest Marples has only recently opened the initial stretches of Britain’s motorway network. The whole thing is a bit of a novelty. In a fabulously plummy voice, the UK government’s Minister of Transport has spoken about “previously unheard-of speeds of up to 70 miles an hour”. The Great British Public, attracted to these slabs of racetrack like moths to a flame, proceed to treat them as if they were no different to the tiny B3857 road to Worsley. They pull over and park on the slow carriageway. They enjoy picnics on them. They reverse up them, they go down the wrong side of them, and they fall asleep while driving on them. In these days before a central barrier, they even cross over and turn around to head in the opposite direction.
To this madness is added a small army of rock groups, in vehicles rented from a highly unsupervised and fledgling car-rental industry. Suddenly it’s possible to get from Sheffield to London in time for last orders at the Speakeasy, a musicians’ drinking club and home base to many of London’s finest, if you pack up the gear quickly and put your foot down. And that’ll save having to run out of the hotel in the morning without paying the bill.
Assuming we’ve actually survived the outward-bound journey, there is always the return to look forward to, and this has a number of bloodcurdling variants. Inevitably, a majority will conclude that if we pack up the gear quickly and step on it, we can make the couple of hundred miles back to the Speakeasy in time for last orders at 2:00am. It always takes longer to pack up than you think. Dressing rooms have to be emptied of clothes and alcohol, strange-looking cigarettes have to be rolled and smoked, bits of gear forgotten, remembered, looked for, found, re-packed.
If we leave behind the lights of Kidderminster, or Accrington, or Boston around 11:00, we are doing well. Adrenalin-fuelled conversation will eventually give way to a lolling silence, while the Volvo howls down the motorway into the black night at around 90 or 100 miles an hour. Outside, parallel Morse-code streams under Cinturato tyres; inside, canned humanity nods, burps, snores. All except me.
I’m sitting shotgun, next to the driver. Because now the big danger is sleep, and my self-appointed function is to keep the driver awake. It has been a long day, a potent brandy, an energetic set, and some stately weed. I talk. I talk for England. I talk for my life. I demand answers from Jon Anderson, our singer and occasional chauffeur, his face lit by the glow of the dashboard, shoulders slumped, head dipping, dropping, drifting, nodding, dipping, dropping, drifting, nod … “Jon!” I scream. “Wake up! Are you sure you’re all right?”
The car jerks back into the centre of the lane. It’s begun to drift toward the siren song of the central reservation, and there is no crash-barrier. “Sure, man. No problem.” Another ten minutes or so, and the eyelids lower again, the head lolls, the vehicle drifts, and the whole sorry cycle repeats itself. Incredibly, we usually do get to the Speakeasy for last orders. Our manager Roy also manages the club, so the steak sandwiches and the scotch and cokes come at a very favourable price. From there the individuals will usually cab it home with various female companions in tow.
But sometimes they don’t. Martin Lamble, the gifted 19-year-old drummer with Fairport Convention, died when their rental Ford, the same one that Aynsley Dunbar’s band had used the week before, crossed the central reservation and ploughed headlong into an oncoming lorry. They had lorries in those days. Martin never got his steak sandwich. The more I dwelt on this, the more I realised our transport arrangements couldn’t continue the way they were. I told the band at the next meeting that I’d make my own travel arrangements. I
hadn’t thought this through, and it would be expensive, but it didn’t seem to bother the other guys. They said: “See you there.” The next gig was in Amsterdam.
Without much noticing, it had moved from dusk to dark outside, and we should be at the club by now, setting up. I cursed to myself and felt my stomach turn over. They should have been here hours ago. Finally, the phone emitted a Euro buzz from the bedside.
“Bill? It’s Chris.” That was unnecessary; the drawling whine of Chris Squire, the bass player, was instantly recognisable if a bit faint.
“Where the hell are you?” I asked.
“We’re at a police station about 30 miles away. They are just taking down some details.”
“Well, Jon had bit of a nod-off, and we left the road and went down this embankment kinda fast.”
My attention drifted with the detail. I didn’t know whether to laugh at the stupidity, cry thanks for deliverance from potential disaster, or scream blue murder at their irresponsibility.
“As I said, good job it was grassy,” the voice was saying.
“We just rattled along at 45 degrees until the thing came to a halt. Messed up the front bumper, though, but no one was hurt.”
Idiots, I thought. Then I said, “How long will it take you to get to the club?”
“Thing is, Bill …” I knew trouble was coming; it was always preceded by a Thing-is “… if you pop down the club now, you could give Micky a hand setting the gear up and soundchecking, and it would be all sorted by the time we turn up, and we should just about be able to make it.”
This was the only man I was ever going to know who could impose upon me, give me a near heart-attack, force me to change my own plans, and then get me to set up his bass, all in the same sentence.