The advice given to Will Jarvis by his doctors earlier in the week might have been for him to “slow down”. In fact, it was to be the classic Larry Williams song that Will and his friends chose to end their emotionally-charged set with, in a packed Cellar bar, just off Cornmarket.
Just the day before, Will had undergone chemotherapy for lung cancer. Only a few of those watching The Falling Leaves, newly reformed for a short Saturday afternoon session, had any idea about how poorly Will has been in recent months, the only clue being a brief reference to him “having had a tough time” from the band’s pink-suited singer Rod Crisp.
Everyone there, however, recognised that seeing these guys, all now in their sixties, playing together for only the second time since 1966 was something special.
The Falling Leaves can lay claim to the title of being Oxford’s first supergroup, who were signed to the Parlaphone label and were to share bills with the likes of the Spencer Davis Group and the Animals. Under their original name of The Madisons, they had supported another Parlaphone group, who also sometimes included Slow Down in their repertoire — the Beatles.
That memorable night took place in February 16, 1963, just a few yards down Cornmarket in the Carfax Assembly Rooms, where the HSBC cashpoint hall is now sited. Will Jarvis, The Falling Leaves’ lead guitarist, is living proof that the old line about the sixties — if you remember them, you weren’t there — does not apply to everyone.
He can still easily bring to mind McCartney on the piano playing old Chuck Berry numbers at the sound check and taking John and Paul for a Chinese in Ship Street, before later watching the Beatles play, breaking the routine of heading straight to The Crown on finishing their own set.
But The Falling Leaves were quite a band back then in their own right. Remarkably, they still are, on the evidence of their blistering performance of Bo Diddley’s You Can’t Judge A Book By Its Cover. Yet the reunion was not so much to celebrate a much-loved band, as a whole musical era in Oxford.
The story of the city’s vibrant music scene in the 1960s and 1970s is set out in a new book Rocking Oxford: A Personal History of the 1960s and 1970s Music Scene by Trevor Hayward, whose own music career behind the drums spans 41 years and 25 bands.
For its launch, he had chosen the underground venue tucked away in Frewin Court (still known to many as the Corn Dolly), where on countless nights he had lugged down his gear to perform on the wooden planks resting on beer crates that served as a stage.
No doubt he reflected that the applause he received as an author, when he took to the stage to thank The Falling Leaves and Steamroller, the local 1970s band who also performed, was more generous than he ever received as a drummer there.
“It was rare to get any applause,” chuckled Trevor. “To begin with most of the audience played in bands and consequently regarded themselves as too cool to clap the competition; and also, if you were standing in the middle of the room with your drink in one hand, clapping was not a wise move.”
While the book is Trevor’s personal history of the local music scene, with recollections of everything from seeing Shag Connors and The Carrot Crunchers, who apparently performed with chickens, to Saturday afternoons spent in the High Street music shop Russell Acott, it also offers a new take on the city’s musical heritage, as we are invited back to the days when mods and beat bands, hippies and glam rockers roamed the bars, clubs and concert venues of Oxford.
Until now, reckons the drummer, the city’s musical fame — at least until the golden 1990s era of Radiohead, Ride and Supergrass — has rested almost exclusively on New College Choir, carols from Magdalen Choir, Haydn’s Oxford symphony and the Holywell Music Rooms.
His mission has been to show that the city of the Dreaming Spires did once really rock, as all those who crammed into Oxford Town Hall to see the likes of the Rolling Stones and David Bowie or saw the Tremeloes or P.P Arnold at Elms Court in Botley always knew.
But, for many people, it will be the chance to revisit some of the city’s long-lost venues — like The Forum, a popular dance hall located down an unwelcoming alleyway on the High Street, the Oranges and Lemons in St Clement’s, or the Stage Club, overlooking George Street, where Pink Floyd once played — that will spark the warmest memories.
Trevor’s own musical career got off the ground at John Mason Grammar School, Abingdon, when, after a few rehearsals, they were unleashed on an unsuspecting public at an end-of-term dance.
“We played four songs twice and finished with an Edgar Broughton Band number with a chorus of ‘kill the pigs’, which got us promptly evicted from the stage,” he recalled. That was in 1969, so he has had to depend on the recollections of many others to bring alive the music scene in the mythical decade of mods and rockers, and peace and love.
The book grew from his freelance work with Radio Oxford, when he was involved in making a programme on the Beatles in Oxford and also a sixties special.
“During the course of making the programme I interviewed many people, some members of the audience, some managing and promoting, some playing on stage,” said Trevor. “Their stories were just fascinating and they would put me on to other people with equally good tales. Then, one wet November night, when I was really struggling with a tooth abscess, to cheer myself up I thought ‘why not put it all in a book?’.”
For serious rock fans, he has unearthed some wonderful material — a poster, for instance, showing that the original Woodstock Festival was actually staged in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, a good two years before the three days and nights of sex, drugs and rock and roll in New York state. Woodstock in Blenheim Park on July 23, 1967, featured Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart, Manfred Mann and P.P. Arnold with Nice.
And, I wonder, how many knew that Freddie Mercury played two shows at the Randolph Hotel and at Highfield Parish Hall in Headington to raise money for Shelter, shortly before joining Queen?
And what about the part that Oxford Town Hall played in the formation of the sixties supergroup Cream? “In 1966, Eric Clapton was at the Town Hall playing with John Mayall’s Blues Breakers,” explained Trevor. “Ginger Baker came to watch and offered Eric a lift back to London after the gig and it was then he proposed he and Eric should form a band.”
However, despite his best efforts, Trevor was unable to confirm the local rumour that Clapton actually played his first professional show in Carfax Assembly Rooms in 1965.
But not all the contributors were focused on such weighty matters as when Eric met Ginger. The drummer-turned-author laughs that the woman he interviewed about Ziggy Stardust’s Town Hall appearance was most anxious to give details about what she was wearing to greet the Spiders from Mars.
It was less difficult finding someone who could recall the Rolling Stones playing Magdalen College for £100 in 1964. Once again The Falling Leaves were the support act. In fact, the Stones’ bass player, Bill Wyman, had to use one of the Oxford band’s amplifiers because of a malfunction with their equipment.
The organisers of Magdalen College’s Commemoration Ball secured the Stones at such a bargain rate because they had booked them the year before. To meet their contractual obligation Jagger and company had to interrupt an American tour and fly back from America.
Rocking Oxford also features a chapter on more local heroes, charting the stories of musicians like Mal Ryder and the Spirits, State Affair and Mr Big, along with the story of promoter Adrian Hopkins, who has represented the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Johnny Cash and Thin Lizzy.
While researching the book, Trevor was struck by how the name Roy Young kept cropping up more than any other when anyone recalled Oxford in the sixties. If The Falling Leaves can claim they supported the Beatles in Oxford, Young was with them at the Star Club in Hamburg and regularly played keyboards or sang backing vocals with them. During his Star Club days he also performed with the likes of Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Ray Charles.
Young, who came to Oxford at the age of five and was brought up in the St Ebbe’s area, started playing piano at the age of eight. After serving in the Merchant Navy, he auditioned for the pop show Oh Boy, the early version of Top of the Pops, and went on to tour extensively with Cliff Richard.
After seeing out a three-year contract with the Star Club he returned to England and played with Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers.
Young, who now lives in Kingston Bagpuize, was still in demand in the 1970s when he was invited to play on Bowie’s Low album.
He, too, was there for the book launch and to share memories, which, in Roy’s case, go right back to when his mother played piano in Oxford pubs.
Watching The Falling Leaves, who might have guessed that two members of the band are battling cancer, with one having recently suffered a terrible family bereavement following a climbing accident? For they were there, for one lunchtime only, to bring back the good times — times that have now been lovingly documented by a smiling 54-year-old wandering around with two drumsticks in his back pocket, who simply ached to join Will and the boys on the stage.
“Well, it’s not often I get to be the youngest guy on the stage these days,” said Trevor. Oh boy, you really should have been there.