Chapter 4

The Bass Clarinet


Xero made out that I was the “fourth member of the anarcho syndicalist collective” but I never really could have been. I was just a bit part actor along for the ride for a while. Besides, I had no desire to get up there and draw attention to myself. The very idea makes me go queasy, shudder with horror and want to take immediate flight, even now. My contribution to a project always tends to be in the background, the observational and organisational stuff: the dotting of i's and crossing of t's.

Their triumvirate had the creative bond of their music and their shared history cementing them together. It was The Works on one side and Every Other Sentient Being in The Entire Universe on the other.

By the time “Shove It” was recorded and released, there seemed to be little doubt in the pubs, clubs, festivals and Jazz Kellers of Mainland Europe that these three were fabulously talented. The hordes of people who told them so after each and every gig could hardly have been mistaken. These admirers didn't even necessarily have to say anything - after one gig in Ghent, a passing Walloon saw Xero standing backstage and interjected with a particularly French
“ Hey.....................................Xero!” and an equally Gallic pout and upturned thumb. He then kept on going and graciously left the musician the space to contemplate as he cleaned the spit out of his instrument.

Back in England it was a different story. When I heard that John Peel was bringing his Roadshow to the Leeds University Refectory one Saturday night, I felt fortunate to get The Works on the same bill and I was quite hopeful that Peel might love them to bits and feature them regularly on his late night radio show on BBC Radio 1 from whence so many musical careers had been launched into (relatively) stellar trajectories. Peel had always professed a penchant for "filthy jazz", (as his headmaster had apparently named this pestilence) and Slingsby was about as filthy as jazz got.  I thought if anyone could "get" punk-jazz in the mainstream music industry in England, it would be Peel.

Admittedly the sound that night had been woeful and they had not had the sort of rapturous response they so often enjoyed on the other side of the Channel. Peel's followers had been a fairly rock oriented crowd and Slingsby's anti-guitar music left them somewhat bemused.

"That was really rather good. I quite enjoyed it. Very....different" the DJ enthused to Xero as they packed their stuff away post-gig.

Had Xero not been such a moody bugger, he might have come up with a slightly more diplomatic response than the gruff retort

"Yeah, well, you must have fucking cloth ears then!" before stomping off, stage Left.

Undaunted, Peel did play the title track of "Shove it!" on his show a couple of times, bless him.


Eventually, with a great deal of positive euro-affirmation, they came to believe in themselves. But back Then, in ye olden days, back when they did not yet believe in themselves anywhere near enough, they would repeatedly undersell themselves to money-grubbing pub owners. In the past, they would go over to the continent with four or five dates pencilled in as definite maybes. If they couldn't pick up any more gigs, they simply busked.

Once the album was out, we were booked in to do a Tour of 40 dates in 45 days in 5 countries. The three of them were scheduled to be interviewed by mustard keen journalists thinking they were the first to spot this bright new avant-garde act. The Works were starting to be feted by adoring crowds, paid well and fed and looked after by satisfied promoters. There was even something called a Rider appearing at every gig. No more queuing at the bar and spending everything they earnt on a few drinks.

By default, I found myself as Administrator, Gofer, Roadie, General Dogsbody. 

Margaret Thatcher had offered to pay me forty quid a week to become self-employed and disappear from the billowing unemployment figures so I set up "Starship Enterprises" in a nicely appointed office at the existing Off Beat Recording Studio. It was in the wooded grounds next to the 11th Century Cistercian Abbey in Kirkstall. I had a phone, a Reel to Reel and a stack of cassette decks to make hundreds of demo tapes; and I had photos and copies of reviews galore - after all, The Works were no artificial record company construct: they were immensely real.

Xero had scrapbooks full of stuff going back ages. I had no budget and even less business acumen, but I did have my trusty thumb for hitch-hiking all over northern Europe. My business partner Theo “looked after the place” while I was away, although that was most certainly a euphemism for all sorts of wheeling and dealing about which I really did not want to know, so never asked. I had the gift of the gab, honest eyes, a pleasant smile and a firm handshake. What's more, I believed wholeheartedly in what I was selling. To my long-suffering family and friends, I was veering dangerously into evangelical territory.

Slingsby initially took some pride in introducing me as their “Manager”, but only for a couple of weeks - after which the novelty wore off and the less authoritative “Administrator” became my official epithet. I knew that I’d landed the job for sure on one beautiful, crisp spring morning in Ghent. Xero and I were leaving the office of the organisers of the Gentse Feesten. This bacchanalian festival is held throughout the city for a fortnight every July. We were there in early March and they were starting to finalise the programme for that year's carnival. We happened to be passing through, on our way to West Germany, to Essen, the Cafe Click and the seminal night when "Shove It!" was recorded.

Xero had been going to the Gentse Feesten for six years on his own and with various Slingsby Ensembles, yet he still tended to turn up every July to play for beer and spirits, a bite to eat, a roof over his head and a bit of pocket money (which invariably went up in smoke). He loved going there, meeting old friends and making many new ones.

This March, with a “Manager” there to argue the toss, to push the merits of The Works and do the sales job that had been begging to be done, we walked out of there with six hundred pounds promised for the one headline gig on the central stage in the main square, plus a couple of other appearances in smaller venues. And that was before we did the rounds of the bars and cafes of the town and, trading on past triumphs, nailed down ten more gigs, at the theatre, the art gallery restaurant, the Café Spago and the Café Damberd.

It was not that they didn't believe in themselves as musicians: on stage, they had always possessed musical self-confidence by the van load - a collective self-assuredness that was sometimes interpreted as an aggressive arrogance. But when it came to selling their talents, that’s when they needed a bit of help.

Like many musicians, they weren't massively well organised. The demo tapes were usually about to be recorded, the biographies to be sent in the post at a later date. As most artists know only too well, day-to-day concerns about commerce definitely don't help the creative process. Given their extraordinary talents and their ability to get places jumping, these three were accepting terrible wages and appalling working conditions. In a way, what they needed was a shop steward.

In this alley-way in Ghent, after dealing with the organisers of the Feesten, Xero recounted a story which illustrated how things had changed.
“Six years ago I was leg-less at 5 AM. Lost my bearings completely, and I was crawling along on these very cobbles with my double bass, my saxophone case and kit-bag. The knees of my jeans were ripped and my skin raw and bleeding.”

And now on this beautiful spring day, here we were, walking out into the same street feeling great: the Artiste and his Manager. We both blinked at the bright sunlight and sniffed the aroma of espressos. Xero turned to me:
" I definitely want you to be our manager, you were really good at doing that in there."
“ Why...thanks… “ I responded with genuine embarrassment, knowing that such praise from Xero was fairly rare.

I too was excited by this leap into hyper-earnings (Six hundred quid for one gig! Bloody Hell!).
“ you think we should have a contract ?”I ventured, thinking 'What if they make it, what if they are hugely successful and wealthy and give me the boot?'
“ Nah. Fuck it. They’re not worth the paper they’re written on anyway ” countered Slingsby.
“ So what percentages should we work on? ” I asked, thinking 10, maybe 15, perhaps 20 at a pinch.
“ Why don’t we make you the fourth member of the anarcho-syndicalist collective and split our earnings four ways?” asked Xero rhetorically, before adding as an afterthought, “ I’ll have to check with the others of course, but they generally do what I tell ‘em”.

At this he lobbed one of his grenade-like guffaws into the conversation. He liked to think he was his own man, but in truth he had an unbreakable bond with the other two, a genuine marriage when compared to the adulterous affairs of previous ensembles. If truth be told, he always took on board what the other two said.

“ O.K., done!” I found myself saying. I was grinning inanely in response to that amazingly toothy grin that Xero had the habit of grinning when he was particularly pleased with life. I thought for a moment before adding
“ And if we ever do become stinking rich through all of this, how about I buy you a Bass Clarinet?”
“Done!” said Slingsby before spitting voluminously onto his huge open palm and offering it to me. The night before he had been raving on about how good they are. Bass Clarinets that is, citing Eric Dolphy's efforts with one as evidence and getting Paul to put the Dolphy "In Europe" LP on the turntable behind the bar at The Damberd. I could well imagine what great noises might issue forth were he to ever get his hands on one.

I never did make quite the same connection with the other two members of the anarcho-syndicalist collective. I respected them immensely for their energy and mature musicianship and for their mutual, almost telepathic, understanding. I often found them funny, but mainly when they were feeding off Xero's wry observations and mad plans.

I got the feeling that they both found me a bit annoying and tolerated me because, for some reason, Xero had decided that I was alright. One thing I liked about all three of them was that they were honest, often painfully so. Once we were embarking on a bona-fide tour and doing gigs and interviews day in, day out, and they were being lauded by all and sundry, their misgivings about my presence seemed to ebb a little.

It must be hugely reassuring when everyone starts fawning over you, telling you how talented you are, how good you look, how funny you are. You could easily lie back and luxuriate in the ego strokes. All three of them seemed to relish the attention, their egos occasionally threatening to grow to ominous proportions. But their saving grace was always their ability to laugh at the world, each other and themselves. If anyone was taking himself too seriously, the others were usually fairly quick to burst any bubbles of self-importance that might be beginning to inflate.

Want to find out more about Anarcho-Syndicalism? Here's Noam Chomsky's take on it....


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