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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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!”
too was 18 when he escaped from that particular sausage factory
to become the “reptilean, amphibious” bassist beside
Gene, behind 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.
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
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.
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.
pillar of English Pop ‘wisdom’, the NME proclaimed:“FIND OUT WHO XERO SLINGSBY IS!”
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
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.”
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 ! ”