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  • Writer's pictureThe Sound Cafe

TALES FROM THE CAT’S WHISKERS: An Old Bedford Van Will Never Let You Down

By Charles Christian.

I hit my teens when the 1960s began. The first few years were not so cool as I was an overweight schoolboy in short trousers but then puberty and the hormones started to kick in just about the time The Beatles were releasing Love Me Do. And just about the same time it seemed everyone at my (all boys) school was forming a band – we called then Beat Groups in those days – well everyone except me.

Turns out that while I can whistle* note-perfect from memory just about every track I’ve ever heard in my life, I sing flat and cannot get a tune out of any musical instrument. Drums, keyboards, guitars, single-stringed diddley bow, mandolin (well I read somewhere that Jimmy Page mastered the mandolin in about an hour when Led Zeppelin were working on The Battle of Evermore so I thought “how hard can it be?” – the answer is “very”) I’ve tried them all and failed. I can’t even tap a set of bongos, shake a tambourine or clap in time. So I became a roadie.

We used to meet up after school in a coffee bar called the Cat’s Whiskers (in my home town of Scarborough, England) and drink frothy coffee – which we thought was called expresso though it’s obviously cappuccino (the ignorance of youth) – out of clear glass Pyrex cups, while listening to the juke box. The coffee bar was rumoured to be the haunt of beatniks – it wasn’t, and a place you could buy drugs – it also wasn’t. The Cat’s Whiskers is still in the same place 55 years later although it’s now the haunt of old age pensioners in beige and grey looking for a bargain-price all-day Full English Breakfast.

But back to the mid 1960s… among the other people hanging out there after school was Alan Palmer, a kid so cool and full of charisma at the age of 15 that even the teachers could feel the breeze when he walked down the corridors of our school. Alan subsequently joined The Alan Bown Set, changed his stage name to Robert Palmer, and went on to become a genuine international rock star before his untimely death in 2003.

Photograph: Robert Palmer ( Alan Palmer ) & Elkie Brookes

As for the band I used to help out with… nothing quite so glamorous. The rhythm guitarist’s father used to run a wholesale business delivering fresh fish to local fishmongers, cafes and fish ‘n’ chip shops during the day and by night we could borrow one of the business’s fleet of vans. These were all those pug-nosed Bedford CA panel vans with the sliding front doors and if the band had to head off early to a gig, before anyone had a chance to hose out the van, we’d arrive smelling of old haddock.

Thanks to their daily cargo duties, the vans were also prone to rusting, so a trip to a gig would frequently include the highlight of dealing with a door that had slid completely off its runners and fallen to the floor. Which at least was better than one particular vehicle in the fleet where the rust was so bad the body had come adrift from the floor of the van and was sagging over the rear wheels. The guitarist’s father had solved this problem by welding a large iron bar across the back of the van, forcing it into a more conventional shape, although this did mean all the amps, drums, PA kit, guitars plus band members, roadies, hangers-on and girlfriends had to use the passenger door.

My best memory from those days was attending a gig at the village hall in Kirkbymoorside (apparently the last town in England to adopt double yellow lines to restrict parking on roads) on the North York Moors, on Boxing Day 1967. The date sticks in my mind because the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour TV special was due to be screened on that night and it was a toss up whether I’d go to the gig or watch the Beatles. In the event, my mates in the band talked me into tagging along – and it was a choice I did not regret as they were fantastic although I somehow have still never got around to seeing the Magical Mystery Tour movie.

The band were hot and played really tight that night. It was the best gig I’d ever seen them play. In fact it was probably the best gig they ever did play, period, as they broke up the following spring. Not musical differences, the lead guitarist discovered his girlfriend was pregnant so he quit the band to get a proper job at the local tax office.

Then, after the show, when we were sitting in the dressing room eating the sandwiches and drinking the mugs of tea that had been laid on for us. This was in the days before bottles of Jack Daniels and exotic riders were being demanded by bands. The manager of the venue paid us the ultimate compliment. “You were really good,” he said, “there were no fights tonight.”

Rock and roll – we were living the dream.

* The one and only occasion in modern times with a whistling-based song bothered the pop charts was in 1967 when the novelty track I Was Kaiser Bill’s Batman by Whistling Jack Smith made number #5 in the UK and #20 on the Billboard Hot 100. When the song was played ‘live’ on Top of the Pops on UK TV, an actor played the part of Whistling Jack Smith and he mimed the whistling.

Charles Christian is a barrister and Reuters correspondent turned writer, podcaster, radio show host and award-winning tech journalist. The Urban Fantasist website is home to his tales of folklore, the occult, geek stuff, rock music and pop culture – as well as anything else that intrigues him. His best known book is Writing Genre Fiction - Creating Imaginary Worlds: The 12 Rules. He also writes and presents the weekly Weird Tales Radio Show  and the Americana Music Radio Show. And, a UK national newspaper really did commission him to go on a werewolf hunt!


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