Chapter 3

Triumph of the Proletariat!

These days, whenever I think of Xero, I become particularly conscious of this fleeting instant and how impossible it is to preserve. I contemplate Mortality and Impermanence and I keep coming back to the Tibetan Monks laying out their Kalichakra Sand Mandala. Out of millions of grains of multicoloured sand they meticulously build a wonderfully intricate circular symmetrical design that somehow makes reference to an ultimate, an infinite, a unified wholeness of everything.


See a mandala being constructed...

They allow everyone to stand in awe and admire their work. And then they take up a dustpan and brush and sweep it up. This phenomenal work of Art, which has taken days, weeks, sometimes even months to make, is swept up and scattered in the nearest river, lake or sea, or just into the wind. That, they say, is Impermanence. That is Mortality. That is the nature of Life and the nature of Death. That, they may say, were they particularly hip Tibetan monks, is the true nature of Jazz.

At which point, and with a bellicose laugh and a cheesy grin, Xero Slingsby pokes his head around the door. And once seen or heard, he is never forgotten. I first bumped into Xero - literally - on the attic stairs leading to a boozy late night Leeds student party somewhere in deepest Headingley. Xero, Louis and Gene were just leaving, en masse, and Slingsby nodded a greeting at me, accompanied by a shy smile.
“Now Then!”
Since I'd returned from my travels we'd seen each other around a fair bit but had never talked.
“Shouldn't bother. It's a load of rubbish” he observed, completely unaware of having nearly knocked me backwards down the stairwell. I found my feet and mentally filed his face away for future reference. Pretty soon I started seeing posters around for The Works. When I got around to visiting the Termite Club one Friday night, I instantly recognised him and his two side-kicks.



When Xero joined up with Gene and Louis to form The Works, it was always going to be a unique combination. The two of them were such a sublime axis, a tight-rope on which Xero precariously balanced, unicycle and all. As their “Administrator” - as Xero chose to call me - I was present at hundreds of their gigs and no two shows were ever the same. Their three-way creative tension was always an endless source of fascination to me. I would stand behind mixing desks watching over the sound engineer’s shoulder, listening and pondering on the nature of this powerful Entity to which they had given birth.

Whether they were playing for a bunch of Punks, Hippies and Ferals in a squatters café, or in front of an audience of jazz afficianadoes in a plush auditorium, or busking in the City Centre for anyone who’d stop and listen, they were always able to tailor their show to suit the “Clientele”. Their shows never failed to be at once arresting, challenging, exhuberant and best of all - a bit of a laugh

And talk about value for money: they would always put in an honest day’s work before doing a spot of overtime. They could be relied on to push the audience to partake, to consummate the moment, to experience irretrievable loss and all-out be-bopping, endorphin-rush highs. Encores - genuine encores, not just “suppose-we'd-better-do-an-encore” encores - always happened in the most raucous of fashions with “the Clients” going berserk.

The Works were invariably asked back again. Their skill in catering for their audience ensured that venue owners were always well chuffed. Bars were always buzzing with well-oiled customers and tills ringing their merry accompaniment. On one sublime occasion they even won over a Graduation Ball at one of the Newcastle University Colleges - Mums, Dads, mortarboards, gowns and all - with an evening of pure Bird-like Hard Bop.

At first we all thought I had made a blunder by booking them for it. When we arrived and saw the buffet, and the toffs in their penguin suits and evening dresses, the three of them were ready to crucify me. But it soon became clear that we were all in for a quite remarkable night. The young graduates related to Xero, Louis and Gene's contemporary Attitude - their Oxfam shop clothes, spiky or shaven hairstyles and Ray-ban shades. Their parents, meanwhile, were busy reliving their own youthful years. They were momentarily flashed back to the roaring forties, jiving and tangoing and bopping to their heart's delight.

The Works were three working musicians, living examples of just how irrelevant all of these bits of paper can be. Three people with barely a swimming certificate between them and yet here they were, beginning to make a living by doing what they enjoyed most.

Gene's parents had given him a drum set for his 8th birthday. From the age of twelve he played in various Big Bands around the Huddersfield area. By the time he left school, becoming a working musician was almost a foregone conclusion. Velocette first set eyes on Slingsby when the saxophonist featured in a BBC documentary about eccentric musicians in Leeds, alongside other such luminaries as The Commies From Mars. He watched Xero commit grievous bodily harm to "Somewhere Over The Rainbow", maiming the tune but still leaving its entrails instantly recognisable. Gene immediately thought that “this bloke'd be something of a challenge to play wi’!”. By the age of 18 he was “the gargantuan, the herculean Gene Velocette”, the rock behind Slingsby.


The making and breaking of street music
Daily Mail , 15 Aug 1981
The Mary Kenny Saturday TV Review of:
"A Town Like New Orleans?"
BBC2 (Broadcast , 31 Aug 1981)

"They talk about books, plays, films, television programmes which 'change your life,' such is the dramatic impact. Life changes come from inside the human soul, though, not from outside. But last night's programme A Town Like New Orleans? (BBC-2 - and the title refers to Leeds, of all places) had a direct influence on my behaviour. Having seen it, I deliberately went out and put money in every buskers collecting hat that I could see.

Busking musicians bring a little sprinkling of joy to city dwellers on their weary commutations and I think it is rotten that the law should persecute them, The programme was a rather unformed but patchily pleasant look at the number of amateur musical groups - at least 200 of them - who strive and sometimes thrive in Leeds.

And it featured on specially appealing saxophone player called Zero (sic) Slingsby...who often plays on the streets of northern towns - and plays very well.
Yet he has appeared in court more than 39 times on charges of begging, vagrancy and obstruction - the technical infringements of the law whereby buskers are persecuted.

It seems so unfair and such a silly law. Most people in my experience like the presence of street (and in London, underground train) musicians. If there is a real obstruction, or if, say, a shopkeeper actively complains, by all means move them on. But regarding busking as illegal is just joyless. Anyway, haven't the Police got enough to do?" 

Seeing "A Town Like New Orleans" certainly was a life changing experience for Gene. If he became the rock, then Louis was to become the hard, but somewhat rubbery, place. Louis simply Was - and I'm sure still very much Is. He had an attitude of Take it or Leave it. He was certainly no follower of fashions - with his shaven head and his billowing baggy pants and flowing overcoat he created his own. As a mightily confident young man Louis now looked like someone who could handle any situation, and have fun doing it. Of the three of them, Louis was probably the most relaxed about everything - except music, about which he could be intensely serious.

Slingsby, Velocette and myself all hid behind pseudonyms. Xero was, he liked to tell people, Xerophones Jedekiah Slingsby - XJS after the Jaguar. He also liked to point out that his drummer’s initials were HGV, and that mine were LSD - L. Sydney D’Arque, or L.Syd for short with the L being for Lycergic and remaining silent. My erstwhile business partner Ian he renamed Theophilus Archimedes Boemflot or TAB for short.

Louis Colan was proud to use his real name. When he started being asked for his autograph, he signed it with a flourish using a Treble Clef for the “L”and a Bass Clef for the “C”. He was someone who had obviously enjoyed much unconditional love when he was a child.

He came from a classically musical family in the well-heeled, well-to-do end of town. From childhood it was “understood” that he would go to Leeds Music College to learn all of the “correct” ways to play. The problem was that the college was full of
“fawning middle-class tossers who never question anything and consequently play music that's as boring as bat shit!”

He too was 18 when he escaped from that particular sausage factory to become the “reptilean, amphibious” bassist beside Gene, behind Xero


Xero also by and large evaded academia - or vice versa. After only a term at Harrogate College, he was asked to take his disruptive behaviour elsewhere. He took to playing the double bass at night in various ensembles (Left Bank Poseurs, Crow, Llamas in Pyjamas, Xero Slingsby Sextet, Xero Slingsby Quintet, Xero Slingsby Quartet) and playing the saxophone by day in subways and shopping precincts. This alfresco activity was brought on by his housemates at his shared squat ("Dunbuskin"), sick to death of his constant racket, asking him nicely to go elsewhere to work on his craft. But that was Way Back Then. Back in the days when he wasn't very adept and wasn't quite sure what all of the keys on his saxophone did.

Now here the three of them were, being paid handsomely by this hoity-toity lot at the Newcastle University Ball. The punters loved it. They lapped it up, parents and all! They were dancing as if possessed and people were even shouting like in a holy-roller church. From behind the mixing desk I could distinctly hear people whooping with joy. The Works often had that effect on their Clients.

And as I said before, they also made people laugh. Xero in particular had this innate sense of the ludicrous and the ridiculous. He revelled in mischievously injecting chaos where harmony might look like prevailing. On stage he activated klaxons, horns, hooters and sirens by nonchalantly stepping on buttons which had earlier been placed all around his feet.

He would stop playing the saxophone, step back out of the spotlight and lean slightly to one side, as if listening to Gene's solo. He would put his hand in his jacket pocket and make as if he was looking for a new reed, and would “inadvertantly” stand on a button which would activate a raucous klaxon, thus “spoiling” the moment, truncating the solo and incurring the drummer's wrath - not always feigned.

A Police Siren was always good for a bit of atmosphere in the middle of the dub reggae number "Three Men in a Tub". A barrage of traffic noise - horns and hooters and sirens - went down a treat in "Unicycling".

As for the Critics, most of them were voluble in their appreciation. In addition to the above review in the Daily Mail, Xero had a bulging scrapbook full of cuttings.

“ Boser-Buben-Jazz-Mix, Frisch, Eklektisch, Live, Zitierand, Weiss, Rhythmisch“ frothed the German magazine SPEX.
“ To me, the eccentricity of Xero Slingsby seems closer to the true spirit of jazz music than a bunch of muesli-munching, polo-jumpered ‘hip’ middle-aged ‘cats’ sitting in a concert hall ‘grooving’ to Oscar Peterson’s Greatest Hits. “ opined Don Watson in the magazine Rendezvous.

That pillar of English Pop ‘wisdom’, the NME proclaimed:“FIND OUT WHO XERO SLINGSBY IS!”

Le Soir remarked that "Le Xero Experience" was veritably “un coup de force”. Other journalists described him as “wild, tempestuous and on the edge”, a “gesmaakte saxofonist” (Some Belgian Paper), a “saxophone-playing tramp” (The Guardian), and a “spotty man with a beard and beret” (Nicholas de Jongh in The Observer).
Xero even made the ever-so-staid New Statesman sit up and take notice. The magazine warned its readers to
“ Watch out for his return to these shores. He’s piping hot and destined for great things.”

Xero’s own personal favourite though was the quote from the Morning Star, the British Communist Party daily, which called his musical bit part in a Russian play
“ A triumph of the Proletariat ! ”

Now that was praise indeed.

Quotes by solomonrobson

....And here is the FULL version of "A Town Like New Orleans" kindly posted on YouTube for our enjoyment and edification by McNulty Media


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