London Calling.. Yanks on Oxford St, pints in the pub with Nick Lowe

London Calling

I’m leaving on a jet plane
Don’t know when I’ll be back again…

John Denver (How the heck did he get in here?)

Gray clouds scudded across the wind-blown fall sky, mirroring the gray buildings of the low London skyline. We piled into a couple of the ubiquitous black cabs and excitedly craned our necks to see the sights as we drove through the chaos of the unfamiliar streets. Every once in a while we’d glimpse a landmark: the Thames, Harrods, Speaker’s Corner.
We’d nearly been turned back at the airport. We didn’t have work permits and claimed we were just tourists, though we looked like an unlikely group of Buckingham Palace gawkers in our rock duds. And we reeked of high-octane transcontinental flight hangovers. But we had blagged our way through the brightly-lit passport checkpoint manned by stern and suspicious customs officers and we were in London, baby. It was hard to believe that we were actually there and that it looked like we were finally going to make another record after five years. After all our hard times, we’d clawed our way back up to the edge of the big time.

We all felt a sense of vindication. But perhaps Johnny Ciambotti, John McFee, and I felt it a bit more. We were the ones who’d had a record deal and lost it. We never stopped believing that we’d make it back. Maybe we’d just been too dumb to admit defeat.

Being in London was a bit like being kids in a candy shop, for sure. London fucking England, man. It certainly wasn’t like being in Lodi. Our management, Dave Robinson and Andrew Jakeman, put us in a tourist hotel on the north side of Hyde Park, near their office off Queensway. It was typical little cheap tourist hotel, a former townhouse carved into tiny, multiple-bed rooms, but with balconies overlooking the streets of a nice neighborhood. There were a few trees and a few shops, lots of hustle and bustle. Nottinghill Gate was not too far, nor was Portobello Road, home of the famous mod flea market. As we wandered there, we imagined John, Paul, George, Ringo, Mick, and Jimi hanging out, buying hip threads. London was so exotic, even to cosmopolitan San Franciscans. There were stylish men in suits, older women in print dresses and warm coats, girls with too much eye makeup, and the dark-blue-black-clad Bobbies (who the cockney Feelgoods called “the filth,” pronounced “filf”), everyone carrying brollies against the frequent splattering of passing rain showers.
There were bookstalls, chemist’s shops, tiny, untidy markets that seemed to sell mostly hard candies, black London cabs, Tube stations, fish-and chips places, open-air Middle-Eastern doner kebab joints (where they sliced the ground mystery meat off a huge, slowly-turning spit, pushing past a few flies to get at it, and dropped it and some vinegar-soaked lettuce and onions into half a pita bread), and lots of neighborhood pubs: the Queen’s Head and Thistle, the Bunch of Grapes, Churchill Arms, the Stanhope Arms, the King’s Arms, the King’s Head, the Cock and Bottle, the Hope and Anchor (called by our new friends “the Hopeless Wanker.”)

Hyde Park was right down the street, across Bayswater Road. Chelsea, Knightsbridge, and Kensington were across the park. We were within walking distance of Embassy Row, Kensington Palace, and further to the east was Speaker’s Corner. For me, London was full of history both ancient and recent and it was very glamorous. I could picture Henry V, Queen Victoria, Sir Richard Burton, and Winston Churchill passing by on horseback or in carriages or sitting in the back of graceful, long-fendered black Bentleys on the streets where we now walked. I looked at the skies and imagined Nazi Stukas dropping screaming bombs through bursts of flak from the anti-aircraft batteries.

Nick Lowe acted as our liaison and guide, a job for which he was well suited, as our tour seemed largely to consist of going to pubs. He took us to the Churchill Arms, near the Kensington Palace at the west end of Hyde Park, where we met Dave Edmunds, Billy Bremner, and other rockers. We quickly learned British pub etiquette: each one buys a round and passes his smokes around the table and then it’s the next guy’s turn. That’s the way it’s done. It made for a good communal evening around the table or at the bar. Tobacco was seemingly unavoidable; there was no pot to be found, a serious blow to us California hippie potheads. Hashish, more easily smuggled past the notoriously tough customs officials than pot, was heated with a match and crumbled into spliffs filled with tobacco, preferably from strong Senior Service brand smokes. Hash was highly illegal; Her Majesty’s government had harsh penalties for possession. So we were very discreet. We were foreigners and phony tourists; we could quite easily be expelled from the country.

Nick, in any case, was a gent who seemed to prefer a pint to a puff. The pub was a natural home for a talented raconteur like Nick. Pub life was different from our home bar culture. It was more about discussion and storytelling than about mindless staring at football on TV, though football matches—boring soccer to me—were up in a few places. Pub life seemed to be passionate rather than passive. Nick regaled us with fabulous stories of his rock life. He’d been on the road with the Brinsleys and had opened for Paul McCartney and Wings and had Elton John open for him. He’d played all over the U.K. He mixed his tales with wonderful humorous bits and insights into the personalities of those household names. Until Nick told us, we didn’t know McCartney could hold it all the way from Glasgow to London while drinking beer on the bus with the band. If he got off at a roadside stop to pee, he’d get mobbed. This seemed like very glamorous, valuable, inside information.

We were booked into a modest recording room called Eden Studio with Nick producing to work up our material for the record. Nick had a unique style, one that earned him the nickname “Basher.” When recording, he didn’t like to get too worked up about getting a perfect take. He just wanted to get the basic shape, just bash it up on the speakers and see how it was working, then refine it. It was about energy and form, not the finer points. This was a technique that would suit me well later, in my home studio. Basher Two: The Sequel. (But I’m not as literate as Nick).
Our schedule was to get to the studio around ten or ten-thirty, half-ten in British parlance, get some sounds up, listen to yesterday’s stuff, and get the juices flowing. Right at half-eleven, Nick would look at his wrist as if he were wearing a watch, and say, “Sun’s a bit over the yardarm, lads!” He meant that the pubs had just opened for the day and it was time to get that prime-the-pump pint or two in before settling down to anything serious. So off we went to the local for a couple of lagers and a pork-pie until one o’clock, when it was closing time again. Not like the Montanan cowboy bars, or even Mill Valley’s Two AM Club, where there were serious patrons in at seven in the morning, getting limbered up for grueling day ahead. The public house was a bit more civilized, but then again, one had to pound the pints before the bell rang.

Now we were ready to make some noise, which we did, with occasional breaks for trays of tea with milk. One shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that the Brit tea tradition is some sort of pinky-off-the-cup sissy thing: there are English teas so highly caffeinated that they make your heart beat funny. This was the stimulant that enabled the Brits to conquer the world and withstand the Nazi Blitz. The daily tea ceremony was a lovely high-voltage pick-me-up-until-the-pub-opens-again tradition.

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