Wednesday, 19 May 2010
It’s fair to say that the psychedelic music of late 60s Britain attracts more than its share of obsessive fans and collectors, and yet, even amongst the most stalwart and hardcore of these dusty fingered myrmidons, the name of The Cloud Shoppe is, more often than not, met with only an affronted glare - as if the very existence of something that has passed under the freak radar is an affront to the sensibilities of the dedicated scourer.
The band’s obscurity is understandable – not many psyche acts can say that their base of operations was rural Devon, or claim to have displayed the kind of cavalier attitude to fame and fortune that The Cloud Shoppe did in their brief lifetime – and yet, none the less, the heart is saddened by their obscurity, because, in their brief time together they managed to cut one of the most essential sides of post-summer-of-love flower punk ever stamped on wax – the evergreen ‘Thirsty Grass/House of Flying Daggers’.
The bands story is typical of the time: “We came together because we were the only kids at school into Hendrix and Soft Machine.” Claims former singer Tony Perk. “This was 1967 and all the other kids were soulies, so I used to get the shit beaten out of me regularly, as you can imagine!” It was during the course of one of these beatings, administered at current paragon of higher education, Tavistock College, that Tony first met his future guitarist and sparring partner, Tony McCorkindale, as tony remembers: “This little freak with long hair and the coolest pair of boots I’d ever seen was having a hard time of it from some of the local colour. They were giving him a serious hiding, so I stepped in to take some of the heat. We were inseparable after that.”
Tony McCorkindale already had a certain pedigree on the Tavistock scene. As the guitarist with Mike Brian’s Moneyshots he’d already toured as far as Luton and back, and had gained a reputation as something of a Jack-the-lad amongst the local ladies!
“He was fucking Cocker-the-walk, that lad, ” remembers Tony, “always in trouble, always gobbing off, always going full-tilt at everything. I just adored him. We were the two Tony’s, y’know? Plus: he had the most beautiful guitar I’d ever seen: a cherry red stratocaster. I used to go round his house just to stare at it.”
As the two teenagers shared an interest in the heavier sounds of the freak scene, it was only a matter of time before talk came round to them forming a band of their own. McCorkindale was already tiring of The Moneyshots’ constant schedule of touring and practicing, and was eager to dip his toe into the swirling waters of psychedelia.
“We loved it. When ‘Purple Haze’ came out we put the little money we had together and spent three days just listening to it over-and-over. Didn’t eat, didn’t sleep, didn’t do nothing. It was like another world had opened its doors.”
Flush with The New Thing, the two Tonys set about recruiting other members. The first to get on board was bass player Mike Saxon.
“Mike was a lovely fella,” claims Tony, today, “he was training to be an electrician at the time, and he was a bit straight, but we soon convinced him to grow his hair long and join in. He was a quiet lad, liked his football, and knew everything that there was to know about cement. Seriously, he was a fountain of bloody knowledge on cement.”
Next came drummer Norris Beer. “All that stuff you’ve heard about drummers? All true. Norris was in-fucking-sane,” remembers Tony, “a proper loon. He used to wind up Mike something rotten. Called him ‘The Mop’, for some reason. He could drink for Devon, could Norris. I once saw him put away an entire bottle of Merrydown before we even got onstage. Plus, he had his own van, ‘cos he was a baker’s delivery boy, so we used to go everywhere in this white van with ‘better fresh’ written on the side.”
With the four convened, rehearsals started in Mike’s front room. Much to the annoyance of the local neighbours. “They’d moan, we’d turn it up. We were well into pissing people off. I think his mum was just happy that he had some friends to play with.” A set of covers was soon put together, with one original, the long-lost “People of Today”, a Perk/McCorkindale composition. “That were a heavy number,” recounts Perk, “there’s a tape of it somewhere, but I’m buggered if I can find it. Hendrix-y, y’know, but well good.” And the name? “Well, that’s the sort of name that all the cool bands had at the time. We were playing Stones stuff, Hendrix, obviously, a bit of Beatles, so we wanted a name that would fit. It were no good being called something like ‘The Champion Band’, y’know? We needed something heavy.”
‘Heavy’ name decided on, the band began gigging, much to the bemusement of the local punters. “Nine-times-out-of-ten there were a fight. The first gig we ever did was a battle of the bands at Tavistock town hall. Loads of people there. Most of the blokes in the audience wanted to kick the shit out of us so we set about winding them up. Tony was doing his Brian Jones thing, blowing kisses to the girls and all that, and we ended up escaping out of the window and hiding in a fruit and veg wagon. Norris didn’t bother. He just took ‘em all on. There must’ve been about sixty blokes trying to kick lumps out of him and he just took it. He nearly killed one bloke, twatted him with his kick pedal. Blood everywhere. That were a brilliant night.” And the competition? “We lost, obviously.”
Undetered by their failure, The Cloud Shoppe embarked on a series of gigs up and down the country. It was at one of these gigs, in the Shaky Doo arms in Bere Alston, that they were spotted by local carpet warehouse manager and budding impressario, Derek Chuff. “Derek cocking Chuff,” ruefully remembers Tony, “he was a fucking nobber.” Nonetheless, initial impressions were positive. As Chuff himself recounts in his frankly unreadable and mercifully unpublished memoir of the times, “Underlaying Tension”: “The four lads looked terrifying. They were very much dressed in the London styles of the time, showing off their muscular physiques which were driving the ladies in the audience mad with desires almost Grecian. After they had finished I immediately made my overtures and offered to manage them.”
“’Mad with Grecian desires’? What the fuck is ‘e on about?” Notes Tony, “There were about four people there and I think they were trying to watch the racing.” Nonetheless, wooed by Chuff’s promises of fame and riches, and even more entranced by his guarantee of a supply of steady cash from his burgeoning carpet warehouse, the band accepted his offer of management.
“We were skint, y’know? And he certainly made it sound good. Gigs in London and all that. And then he offered to put us in the studio, which sealed the deal.”
With an eye on the eventual recording, the two Tony’s started to write the two songs which would be immortalised forever under the titles “Thirsty Grass” and “House of Flying Daggers.” Several factors contributed to their creation. “Well, we’d tried acid by then. Not Norris and Mike, that would’ve been disastrous, but me and Tony had given it a go. I enjoyed it, but Tony, fucking hell, he loved it. Couldn’t get enough. He managed to find a regular supplier in Plymouth and that was that. He was a freak for the stuff.”
The two songs that emerged were rehearsed and put down in Bob Tugg’s tiny recording studio in Tavistock, a place more used to the delicate strains of various rural folk acts. “There were a band in there recording before us called Bodger’s Mate. They took one look at us and began to piss themselves laughing. Couldn’t believe these freaks who had rolled up. They stuck around for a bit to take the piss, but they rushed off pretty quick when we started playing “House of Flying Daggers,” I can tell you that.”
The reason for the scared folkies flight is obvious to anyone who listens to the finished offering. “House of Flying Daggers” is a monstrous track. From it’s opening stacato guitar, to its frenetic, headlong conclusion, it is one of the earliest examples of what is now called “Proto-punk.” Featuring McCorkindale’s scorching, Hendrix influenced lead guitar, a gruff, powerful vocal delivery from Perk and a rhythm section powered along by Beer’s thunderous drums, it is a lesson in the power of simple recording techniques. “We set up and we let rip. We knew we were the heaviest band around, and having those wankers laugh at us just made us more determined to prove it. They did us a favour in a way.” Though still staggering in its power, “House of Flying Daggers” is eclipsed by the work on the singles eventual A-side – the stunning “Thirsty Grass.”
A song in two parts, “Thirsty Grass” can best be compared to the Pretty Thing’s psych opus “Defecting Grey.” It has a similar sense of mania and mystery, although its strange, isolated feel is completely unique. “That was Dartmoor,” claims Tony, “just such isolated countryside. We were trying to capture the coldness and bleakness of it. Me and Tony used to go up there tripping. It used to get really fucking scary sometimes, what with the wind and the knowledge that there wasn’t anyone about for miles. I used to get freaked out, but Tony, well, Tony wasn’t afraid of anything. We came up with the title of the song on one of these tripping sessions, where Tony reckoned he could hear the grass crying out for water. That shit me right up, so I figured we must be onto something good.”
“Thirsty Grass” weaves into view with a beautiful, lambent guitar shimmer. A strange drone is just detectable in the backround (which Tony claims to have no memory of recording) before Perk’s vocal whispers into earshot; “Beware this thirsty grass,” he intones, “Come a time thirst becomes hunger/and the grass knows how to bite.” The song rises in volume and tension, anchored all the time by Saxon’s simple-but-effective bassline, before a sudden lurch, as McCorkindale’s steel edged guitar cranks out a delirious riff, and the band pounds into oblivion, Perk’s vocals still swaying above the chaos. It ends, after four too-short minutes, with a howl of psychedelic confusion from Perk and a neon swarm of distortion. It remains utterly magnificent. “I fucking love that song,” says Perk, today.
“When we first heard it back we were just delirious, jumping around the room. We knew we’d made something really good.” However it was manger Chuff’s opinion that first showed signs of a split in the Cloud Shoppe camp. “He hated it, just hated it. He couldn’t get his head around why we hadn’t recorded something more commercial. We were stunned. I mean, this guy had been to see us, he knew what he was getting, the kind of band we were. For him suddenly not to like it felt like treachery.”
Chuff’s biography goes into more detail. “The single was a disaster. Badly recorded and with no chance of commerical success. Would girls dance to it? Would it leap, like an olympian, to the very top of the hit parade? There was nary a chance. My boys had let me down.” Perk’s reaction is less wordy: “Wanker.”
After convincing Chuff to front the money to press the single, the band embarked on another relentless schedule of gigs. “We had to get out there. We had written more new songs and they were beginning to dominate the set, so we had to get them heard.” Unfortunately, disaster never seemed to be too far away from the band at this point, and Norris Beer, particularly, began to show certain alarming character traits.
“I mean, we knew he was mad,” recounts Perk, “It’s just how mad that came as a surprise. Once, after a gig in Morcombe, I saw him eat an entire raw fish. Just like that, y’know? He grabbed it from a barrow, flicked the bloke the money and just popped it in his mouth. Bones and all. That was worrying, but it was the fighting that began to get a bit silly.” Beer’s reputation as a hard man was beginning to get the band noticed, particularly in their local area. “It got to the point where we just couldn’t play in Devon anymore. Wherever we were, Whitchurch, Bere Alston, Exeter, we would always end up with a huge bunch of lads at the venue threatening to kick crap out of us. This was fine for Norris, he could look after himself, but for the rest of us, and especially Tony, it was a bit much.”
McCorkindale’s acid use had accelerated, as a result the constant violent scenes that accompanied the band on tour were becoming too much for him to take, and would often leave him in deep, paranoid moods that would last for days. “I tried talking to him. We all did. We told him to stop taking so much acid. He would just sit there before gigs, staring into space. Not even communicating. Chuff began to go on about getting rid of him, but he could fuck off. It was nerve racking though, ‘cos it was getting to the point were he couldn’t deliver on stage anymore.”
One particular occasion stands out. “Tiverton, March 3rd, 1968,” recalls Perk, “My mum’s birthday. I’m never going to forget that. No sooner had we arrived than this bunch of nutters locked us into the dressing room. We’re all standing there, trying to force the door, when suddenly the window breaks and this fucking German stick grenade comes rolling into the room. Needless to say we fucking shat and smashed the door straight off its hinges. I mean the bomb was a dud, they were just trying to shit us up, but it shows how paranoid we were at the time. They were waiting for us outside and we took a hell of a beating. Tony ran away and we couldn’t find him for hours. He was just sitting on a bench, crying. We missed the gig and took him home.”
And where was chuff during all this? “Fuck knows. He was always saying that he had bigger fish to fry, y’know? We thought maybe he meant sorting us out a big gig in London. Turned out he meant something quite different.”
The big gig in London did arrive, however. “Oh yes, the big one.” Winces Tony, “how can I forget that gig. Those sodding suits…”
Unbeknownst to the band, Chuff had been working hard to secure them a slot and London’s prestigious UFO club, one of the foremost venues of the burgeoning counter-culture. “God, we were excited. Even Tony was getting het up about playing the UFO. We had read about it in the NME all the time, y’know? It was were all the heaviest groups played and we were going to be right up there with ‘em. We practiced really hard for that gig.” Upon arrival in the capital, however, the band received a shock. “We thought it was all about peace and love, y’know? But everyone we met was really snobby to us. They didn’t like that we were from Devon, that we weren’t wearing the most fashionable clothes. The other groups that were playing that night just ignored us. We never felt so out of place. At least back at home they would aknowledge our existence by belting us, y’know?” However the greatest shock came just before stage time. “We were all getting ready to go on – first, of course – when Chuff came backstage and showed us our new stage get up. These bloody horrible jump suit type things. They were all matching and had these pictures of clouds all over them. We were just horrified. I mean, at first we were laughing. No bloody way were we going to wear these at the UFO, we would be a laughing stock. But then Chuff started to get nasty. It was weird how it happened. Just one minute he was Derek Chuff and the next he was a monster. He started screaming, I mean, really screaming right into our faces, about how we had let him down, how we had no right to refuse him after all he’d done for us. Then he started throwing stuff around and, as a last straw, he started picking on Tony, slapping him about, and poor Tony’s in no condition to put up with it. We were all just shocked. Even Norris was terrified. Chuff put his whole hand through a pane of glass and stood there, hand covered in blood, howling at us. In the end we were so scared that we just stuck the suits on and went on stage, shaking.”
The gig itself was, according to Perk, a disaster. “The audience couldn’t believe it. Here were these fucking farmers, trying to play psychedelic rock, with a practically catatonic guitarist, in these fucking jumpsuits. I mean, we tried, we really did, we all tried to hold it together, but it was no good. If you don’t have the audience behind you it can be an uphill struggle at the best of times, but what with everything else, we didn’t stand a chance. I remember looking over at Tony and him just being lost. He didn’t know what was happening. I finished the gig by tearing the suit off and just standing there, tackle out, with Norris flicking v’s at the audience. Not the London debut we’d all dreamed off. I mean, I laugh about it now, but very rarely. We took off as soon as we came offstage, devastated.”
Upon returning to Devon some changes were made. “It broke my fucking heart, having to sack Tony, but it was obvious to everyone that he needed help and being on the road was no good for him. The last time I saw him was when I went round his house to tell him the news. It had to come from me. He took it pretty well, I suppose. I mean, he hardly said anything when I told him. He just sort of looked at me, nodded and asked if I wanted to do some acid. I refused and left. I just didn’t think there was much hope for him. Chuff we never saw again after London, thankfully. It was only a month or so later that we all read the news in the paper.”
On the 16th of October 1968, Tony McCorkindale was found dead from exposure on Dartmoor, he was 21. “It’s still a bit of a mystery, I suppose, but knowing him like I did, I can imagine what had happened. He’d gone up to trip in the dark and lost his way. That’s all, just something as bloody silly as that. He loved the moors, did Tony. He used to talk about wanting to capture the feeling of being up there through his guitar. It sounds silly, but if you listen to that record I reckon you can hear it. It’s hard to think of a more suitable way for him to have gone but I miss him every day. We were the two Tonys, y’know?”
Perk eventually reconvened with Saxon and Beer, along with guitarist Mike Savage, to form the heavy rock group, Toe. They carried on for a while with limited success, before disbanding in 1970, leaving no recordings. Derek Chuff hanged himself in 1973, following a series of accusations of financial mismanagement. “We’d been part of his plan to set his finances straight. We were used by Chuff as a fucking tax dodge. No, I can’t say I was sorry to hear about his death. Sad, yes, but not sorry.”
Norris Beer eventually became a locally succesful boxer and news agent. He succumbed to cancer in 1987. Mike Saxon became an electrician. Him and Tony still meet up for occasional drinks. “We don’t talk about the band much,” Tony claims, today, “as far as I’m concerned it’s just too sad. My best friend dead, all those dreams in ruins.”
And what about the single, does Tony still listen to it? “All the time. We really captured something there, something that no other band was doing. At the time I suppose you could see that as a flaw, it was just too unique, now, as the years go by, I think that’s its major strength. Every member’s personality is captured on that record, especially Tony’s. Sometimes, when I listen to it, I imagine he’s playing it now, from Dartmoor. The ghost of the moors, y‘know? Singing to me with that beautiful cherry red Fender.”