September 2017

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Remember the Sidetracks?

By Phil Brown

Fear gripped me as I stood on the stage and surveyed the crowd, their expectant faces turned upwards in hope. My mouth was dry and I felt a flush of embarrassment as I clutched the microphone in my sweaty palm. Maybe I should have thrown up before I came on? Too late now. Then the first spare notes of acoustic guitar started, picking out the intro to Happy Together by The Turtles.

         I raised the microphone to my lips and I started to sing … “Imagine me and you, the two I do, I think about you day and night it’s only right, to think about the girl you love and hold her tight, so happy together …” On the word together my co-lead singer chimed in with me and then the other band members harmonised – if you could call it that.

          No matter how it sounded it felt good and I looked down to see one of my pointy black leather Beatles boots starting to involuntarily tap on the wooden floor of the stage in the school hall at Kowloon Junior School, Hong Kong. I flicked the fringe of my mop-top out of my eyes and thought maybe, just maybe I would get through this gig – my first gig with The Sidetracks. Remember The Sidetracks? Of course you don’t. Who has ever heard of The Sidetracks? No one. But we were the pride of grade six and in 1967, just as the Summer of Love was dawning, so was our fledgling pop career with our debut in a concert at the end of the school year.

          I remember looking out at that sea of faces – my younger sister was out there somewhere – and at the rear of the hall I could see the headmistress, Mrs Versloot, in her trademark mini-skirt and fishnet stockings. Wow. Some headmistress. We used to dream of getting in trouble and being called to her office. She was so cool but how we talked her into letting us play for the school I cannot remember. What I do remember is the visceral facts of the matter – the pre-show nerves, the nausea, the thrill and the fear associated with performing in front of almost everyone I knew.

          This was a bittersweet gig because I knew we would probably never be together in this hall again. The term was at an end and so was the school year and the humid monsoon months lay ahead, that long break when most of us would return to our home countries to escape the heat. This break was always a watershed and many never returned. Friends would simply disappear from our lives as their fathers’ tenure in the British colony ended, for whatever reason. If they were American missionaries maybe their time was up, with British civil servants they may be recalled to Mother England, there were multifarious reasons. For us kids it meant our retinue of friends diminished and swelled as newcomers arrived. As we stood on the stage something was beginning and something else was coming to an end. I can’t remember what happened to those other boys in the band– two at least left. Soon the rest of us would go up the long steps at the nearby high school, King George V School.

I was ten, nearly eleven and it felt like my pop career was peaking already. As we stood on the stage cranking up and launching into our limited repertoire of covers we started to feel like kings. We were the cool guys who were in The Sidetracks and that counted for something.

         I was looking down on everyone, mainly because the crowd was seated cross legged on the floor. Out front, just below us in front of the stage were our go-go dancers wearing white boots and as we started to play they went through their moves clumping on the parquetry. I can’t recall all their names but I know one of them was Judith Chalmers, a Scottish girl who went out with Mark Reeve, one of my soccer pals. Her dad was a policeman.

        On stage there were four of us in The Sidetracks – me and three Americans who were in my year. It was a lean outfit (they don’t get much leaner) and it relied on limited equipment and even more limited expertise. We had a snare drum, a small bass drum, a cymbal, an acoustic guitar, two tambourines and a sound system which was borrowed from the PE department – one of those little speakers that teachers used to bark instructions at you while torturing you at gymnastics or track and field. We had two small microphones hooked up to it for the lead singers: me and a kid named Robert Hafner.

         The drummer’s name was Scott Gepford, a lanky Yank who got into the band because he was the only guy we knew who had a drum set – or half a drum set at least. He was a genial fellow and his parents were missionaries. I remember going to a Halloween party at their church school in the New Territories once. We were all blindfolded and led around to tables where we were told to fondle a variety of mysterious items laid out for the occasion. There were peeled grapes which we felt and recoiled from when we were told we were actually handling eyeballs; there was spaghetti which was supposed to be guts – you get the picture. Later we bobbed for apples and then we did some trick or treating Afterwards we gorged on candy until our guts ached. Halloween was cool and one of the benefits of having so many Americans around.

        The lead guitarist – who was our only guitarist – was our maestro, the brains behind the band, Chris Nelson. Every group needs a guy like Chris. He was tall and blonde and a pop music Svengali, in his way. He recruited us and came up with the name The Sidetracks, which we thought was cool. We said cool a lot in those days and punctuated our conversation with man – it was “Hey man” this and “Hey man” that.

        Chris wore his fringe long, flicked it across his face a lot and lived for pop music. We all did but he was more obsessed than any of us.  I remember one day in Mrs Bramwell’s class, we were playing a game of charades and when it was Chris’s turn to get up and do his bit he combed his thatch right down over his eyes, then stood in front of the class to do his mime act. We quickly ascertained that, yes, it was a song title … or an album title? Yes, an album title actually. Chris pointed madly at his shirt and the class was mystified until I picked up on it. He was pointing down the front of his shirt but missing the buttons and that gave me my clue.

        “Between the Buttons!” I shouted out. It was a cracking Rolling Stones album that had come out earlier that year. It featured The Rolling Stones on the cover- Brian Jones was still alive then – and they were huddled together, obviously freezing, in a misty park somewhere in London. In fact, it looked like they had slept in the park. Chris was impressed that I got it but I would, wouldn’t I? I thought more about pop music than school work, that was for sure.

Chris was an inspirational band leader in those short months that we were together and he had a mature and encyclopaedic knowledge of American and British pop despite being basically, well a kid. But he didn’t seem like a kid.

He could actually play the guitar pretty well too and was without a doubt the musical heart and soul of the group. I mean without Chris Nelson The Sidetracks would not have existed and I certainly wouldn’t have been standing there together, preparing to blow away grades one through six.

        I had already sung in that hall on a few occasions with the school choir until I had been kicked out for horsing around. I was standing with some friends on a bench behind the front row so that the second tier could be seen and halfway through some lilting English folk song – it was O, No John, I think – I was nudged sideways and ended up spread-eagled on the wooden floor. Thus ended my career in the choir. I may not have ever taken to that stage again had I not joined The Sidetracks.

        If you’re going to be in a pop band you have to look like you are in a pop band so we dressed for the part in tight jeans, with matching turtle-necks and of course we all wore Beatles boots.

         Our gig consisted of covers of half a dozen tunes and I can’t remember them all although I know we did do Barry Maguire’s Eve of Destruction  which sounds like an odd choice for kids our age but Chris Nelson was way ahead of us and this was his anthem, so it just had to be sung. It was, it must be said, a tad apocalyptic for a primary school audience … I can still remember the look on the teacher’s faces as we sang the first verse … “The eastern world, it is exploding / Violence flarin’, bullets loadin’ / You’re old enough to kill, but not for votin’ / You don’t believe in war, but what’s that gun you’re totin’ / Even the Jordan River has bodies floatin’.” Then we all chimed in for the chorus … “But you tell me / Over and over again, my friend/ Ah, you don’t believe / We’re on the eve of destruction.”

We also had Black is Black by Los Bravos in our song list, another song which wasn’t exactly sunny. We were being a bit self-indulgent I suppose and playing what we liked rather than crowd pleasers. I can’t remember us doing any Beatles tunes at all though that would have gone down well. But we started with Happy Together which would get the kids attention and then we lay the heavier stuff on them.

         We just liked that music because it sounded good but some of it reflected the darker undertones of Cold War paranoia and the escalating disaster in Vietnam. We were aware of these things as we heard our parents talking about them and saw them on the nightly news. It was the swinging Sixties but it was also a time of turmoil and Hong Kong was under threat from an escalating Red Guard insurgency. There were riots and civil strife and even curfews at night around this time but we were strangely unaffected and we lived our lives without too much interruption.

        Music is what I really cared about. One of my earliest memories of Hong Kong is of listening to The Beatles single PS I Love you. I was constantly glued to a small transistor radio in our first flat at St George’s Court, high on a hill in Central Kowloon, a little European enclave of privilege at the top of Kadoorie Avenue.

        My mum had noticed that I was developing a thing for the Fab Four so she talked my father into buying me a plastic record player. Then they bought me a 45rpm single of PS I Love You. It was 1963, I had my first record and I played it ad nauseum. It choked me up even at that tender age and it is with a certain amount of embarrassment that I recall listening to it with tears in my eyes. I was, of course, suffering the first signs of a case of galloping Beatle mania.

        I began slowly collecting their records – singles mostly, at first – and I also listened to them regularly on the BBC which was broadcast into Hong Kong so we colonials could keep up to date with the pop music explosion that was happening in what many regarded as the mother country.

         The Beatles’ music became the soundtrack of my early years in Hong Kong.  In fact, the arc of our time mirrored the rise and fall of the Fab Four and by the time we left in late 1969 – long after The Sidetracks had split – the Beatles had broken up too and John and Yoko were hitting the headlines.

         I loved The Beatles above all others and was beside myself when, in 1964, my father, who had been in Bangkok on business, flew back to Hong Kong on the same plane as John, Paul, George and Ringo. They had jetted in from Amsterdam and when they got to Hong Kong, landing at Kai Tak on that famous runway – a finger of tarmac jutting into the harbour near the teeming tenements of Kowloon City – there was a huge crowd there to meet them. My father wasn’t the slightest bit interested in the group and joked that he had actually thought the crowds had been there to greet him. I was just amazed he had been in proximity to my idols.

         My tastes broadened eventually to include other bands. It was in a later residence that I had my first experience of the music of The Rolling Stones.

        By 1965 we were living in a spacious first floor flat in Wisteria Road Yau Yat Chuen, a quiet little residential precinct where all the roads are named after flowering trees – verbena, cassia, and peony. It was a sedate enclave a world away from downtown Kowloon which was bustling in the Sixties. Refugees were pouring in escaping the brutality and repression of Mao Tse Tung’s China. Hong Kong was suffering from overcrowding and Kowloon was teeming. Mongkok, just a couple of kilometres away from Yau Yat Chuen had a reputation as having one of the highest population densities on the planet. But with money and privilege you could ignore all that.

         I wonder now how it must It must have been for servants such as our Amah, Ah Moy, who lived in our privileged world while her parents were living in a squatter’s shanty town somewhere in the New Territories. Ah Moy inhabited a small servant’s quarters at the rear of the Yau Yat Chuen flat. She and the other servants in the block worshipped at a small Taoist shrine at the rear of the building. There seemed to be always joss sticks burning there.

        In Yau Yat Chuen, I continued my love affair with The Beatles and had my next major pop epiphany – The Rolling Stones. This discovery was made kind of by accident, care of my parents. That year The Rolling Stones had a hot new album out – December’s Children – and one day my mother came home from shopping in Tsim Sha Tsui with a nice crisp copy of this LP. It’s a great album, as any fan will know, with that moody black and white photo on the cover of The Stones standing in a London alley, pouting. Mick Jagger was the king of the pout in those days. I have a photo of myself feigning that pout, taken down the side of the driveway in Ya Yat Chuen, actually, but I’m not sure my dad knew why I was pouting. Probably thought it was just my usual moodiness.

        When I asked mum why she had bought that record – thinking at first that it might be for me – she told me it was for my cousin Peter back in Sydney. His birthday was coming up and my aunty had told Mum that Peter was mad for The Rolling Stones. So my mum went downtown and came home with December’s Children. My father thought it looked a bit dodgy though and insisted they played it first before sending it back to Australia.

         I still remember that new record smell when they peeled off the plastic wrapper. When it was put on our family record player – a solid old Grundig which was virtually a side board with turntable and radio inside – the noise that emanated from it was so repugnant to my parent’s ears that they vowed not to pervert their nephew’s eardrums with it. Admittedly the first song, She Said Yeah, is pretty full on, the lyrics almost unintelligible – all part of the allure actually – but there are some more mellow tracks afterwards although my parents didn’t get that far.

Their record collection consisted of music by The Kingston Trio, Pat Boone and Bing Crosby. Not exactly racy, although my dad did have an LP of rugby songs. It was by some blokes who called themselves The Jock Strappe Ensemble and it included some disgusting songs, including the famously blue The Ball of Kirriemuir which features the refrain “… Balls to your partner, bums against the wall, if you never get shagged on a Saturday night, You’ll never get shagged at all.” How do I know this? Well I used to play it surreptitiously when my parents were out, much to the delight of my prurient friends.

         As for December’s Children well, they could have thrown it out but for some reason they kept it and I played it and loved it. They weren’t happy about me listening to it at first but eventually they relented. Turned out they weren’t really offended by anything on it, they just thought it was so awful, aesthetically and musically, that they were too embarrassed to  give it to anyone. The songs on that album became part of my subconscious … Blue Turns to Grey, Get off My Cloud, the beautiful ballad As Tears Go By, which had been previously recorded by Mick Jagger’s ethereal blonde girlfriend Marianne Faithful. The album concludes with an amazing live version of Route 66 which is nearly drowned out by the sound of the screaming fans. 

         My musical horizons continued to expand.  I was still in the thrall of Beatle mania but my tastes now included The Rolling Stones and soon it would be Jimi Hendrix, The Doors and many other iconic Sixties bands.

Around that time, I started, naturally enough, wanting to wear my hair longer, so I could look like my idols. My father had been taking my brother and I to a Chinese barber in Mongkok for some time though and we were being regularly scalped there by that butcher. The first time we went there I was horrified when I saw the barber up-end a rice bowl, place it on some poor kid’s noggin and just cut around it. Luckily we weren’t subjected to that but we got rough justice nonetheless, brutal prison-style haircuts that made you go home, look in the mirror and want to cry. 

         On haircut days I sat there like a condemned prisoner, gagging on the smell of Bay Rum and watching the barbers hack away.

          Soon I started what would become a habit for some years of combing my hair  down over my forehead in a vain effort to look like one of the Fab Four.

          Eventually, after constant protest, we switched barbers to the one my dad used in downtown Tsim Sha Tsui, the commercial and tourist hub of Kowloon.

         The barber was in an arcade at The Peninsula Hotel, that gracious colonial icon that had been built on the waterfront overlooking Victorian Harbour in 1928.  This was the hotel where Noel Coward stayed and where various crowned heads had propped and it was the social hub of our world. The barbers here were used to a more discerning clientele with more westernised tastes and seemed to understand when I pleaded that my hair not be cut too short.        When my mum took me there she let the barber leave it a little shaggy, even. Bliss.

         Lots of teenagers in Hong Kong were wandering around looking like extras from the BBC music show Top of The Pops then …or trying to at least. Girls were wearing mini-skirts and psychedelic ties and paisley shirts were all the rage for blokes. Honkers was swinging and while it wasn’t London, it was dubbed Carnaby Street East.

         British pop culture was disseminated through the BBC, local radio and TV and imported pop magazines. With my pocket money I bought the monthly Beatles magazine The Beatles Book, which my father thought was a waste of money. One day I remember being embarrassed after I got my regular copy in the bookshop at the YMCA in Salisbury Road. I met my parents in the foyer of The Peninsula afterwards and my dad upbraided me in front of some snooty socialites for wasting my money on such rubbish.

         But The Beatles Book became my Bible. Another holy text was Fab 208, a magazine full of the latest pop news from England. It had great centrespreads that you could pull out and plaster all over your bedroom wall.

         When we moved to our grandest residence in Hong Kong at 7 Devon Road, Kowloon Tong I moved into a bigger room while my brother and sister were corralled together. Seniority had its perks. I put up pop posters everywhere I could and I woke each morning to see John Lennon staring at me in his melancholy way or Jimi Hendrix with his midriff exposed.

         I fed my pop habit buying records at a small store in Mody Road, which is just off Nathan Road not far from the harbour front in bustling Tsim Sha Tsui. It was a happening precinct in those days full of girlie bars to service the troops from Vietnam who poured into Hong Kong on recreation leave. At night, it glittered brighter than Las Vegas ever could and was a neon wonderland. But it was equally exciting in the daytime which is when I would catch one of those red double decker buses in from Kowloon Tong looking forward to revelling in the store that was a shrine to pop music. The proprietor of the shop – and I cannot for the life of me remember what the shop was called – was a skinny Chinese guy with a rather unfortunate overbite who, try as he might, could never quite achieve the grooviness he aspired to.

         His record store was popular and as well as being a hub for locals it became a hang-out for American servicemen escaping, however briefly, the escalating conflict in Vietnam. Tsim Sha Tsui was awash with them and so was my record store. I remember arriving one day to find a group of them jiving hammer and tongs down the back.

          “Hey brother,” one of them said when I turned up, “Can you dig it?” Wow, could I. I couldn’t tell whether this tall African-American was a soldier or sailor because he was in mufti of skin tight trousers and maroon satin shirt.

         He and his friends were dancing to some Motown tune, loose-limbed, languid and incredibly cool. The guy who owned the store was gleefully trying to groove along with them. He obviously thought they gave his establishment some sort of cachet but, try as he may to be hip his broken English, just wasn’t suited to jive talk.

         Each visit there was a revelatory experience and I can still remember the day in the summer of ‘67, not long after The Sidetracks gig, when I walked into that store to find it wallpapered with copies of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I can still smell that new album smell and see the proprietor grinning that overly toothy grin as he watched my eyes light up.

         “Sarga Peppa! Yeah!” he said. I was delighted, mystified and bedazzled by what I heard on that album. I holed up in my bedroom for days playing that album over and over again. I still wonder why The Sidetracks didn’t play a Beatles song at our only gig. 

         Standing in front of the crowd in the Kowloon Junior School Hall that day in 1967, I didn’t realise it would be my one shot at pop stardom. We all broke for summer holidays afterwards and when the new school year began those of us who were left were in high school and we never got back together.

          But standing on stage it was only the moment that mattered. The Go-go dancers did the pony and the twist, Robert Hafner and I strained to be heard while Chris Nelson focused on his chords, tongue sticking out in concentration. Scott Gepford might have been thinking of Keith Moon as he tortured his drum kit. And the audience – well, we had them in the palm of our hands, we really did. Remember The Sidetracks? I do.