The first time I realised I could actually be in a band was 1985 when I was fourteen and living in Cardiff. Some school friends of mine invited me to a party under the pretext of auditioning me to sing in the group they had formed. They were called 'Cerebral Infarction' and the group’s leader, Joseph Amodeo, said he had heard me singing in art class one day and they desperately needed a vocalist. Cerebral Infarction consisted of Joseph on bass and Geoff Price on drums. They didn’t know anyone who could play guitar. Their set consisted of Joy Division songs and originals written in the style of Joy Division. I was too nervous to sing at the party and a few weeks later my family moved to Cheltenham. However, the experience left a marked impression on me. (I found out later that Cerebral Infarction had eventually morphed into Axis PR and had supported Kula Shaker at The Marquee in 1996!)
In 1987 I changed schools to start sixth form and I met two guys (Richard Kilbey and Andrew Herod) who were heavily into The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell and had learned to play acoustic guitars. They did this lovely instrumental version of “Norwegian Wood” together and I thought it was just about the coolest thing I’d ever heard. I went into ‘Aroundabout Sound’ in Cheltenham and bought a Kay bass for £40 with money I had earned stacking shelves at a local supermarket. Almost immediately I wrote my first two songs, “Running Free” and “My Best Friend”, drawing inspiration from Cerebral Infarction, and I was bitten by the songwriting bug. (Unfortunately, I wouldn’t write any other decent songs for about a decade.) The next step was forming a band.
Richard, Andrew and I found a drummer in fifteen year old AC/DC fan Hugh Lyford and 'Embryo' was born. (The name being suggested by our A level biology teacher, Mrs Carruthers). Here are pictures of us rehearsing in the loft at my parents’ house in 1988.
I somehow acquired a nylon stringed guitar that year and taught myself to play six string guitar with The Complete Guitar Player series of books by Russ Shipton. I remember the breakthrough of finally being able to master an F chord. As my interest in all things musical grew my school work suffered and I ended up flunking my A levels. Having failed to get into university, I took a year off to earn some money and concentrate on the band. My parents were thrilled, as you can imagine. At one point my mum threw my entire drum kit out of my bedroom window! (Apart from the bass drum which wouldn't fit through.)
Embryo morphed into 'Tertium Squid', who evolved into 'Black Toad '78', a name inspired by the sleeve notes from Fleetwood Mac’s 1968 album, ‘Mr Wonderful’. I variously played drums, guitars and bass in these bands as well as singing. We recorded a lot of stuff – cover versions and original tunes – and the other day I found my notebook which I started at this time where I would write out the lyrics to songs I had learned to play:
For some reason, we never actually managed to play a gig. I think we thought we were just a bit too rubbish.
When I finally made it into higher education in York the following year, I made a bit more progress on the guitar but never joined a band. All the people who were in a band at college were much more competent players than me and I didn’t think of myself as a vocalist at that time. However, I was mates with the biggest band on campus, Funk Fish, and attended all their gigs. I was sort of their roadie; a role that mainly involved rolling spliffs for them. Still, valuable skills in the School of Rock.
After being kicked out of uni after only a year for failing to produce any work (they weren’t interested in the fact that I could now roll really good spliffs), I found myself back in Cheltenham and got straight to work getting a band together. The first incarnation was 'Uncle Bob's Plaster', a group I formed with my friends Dave West, Derren Perry and Matt Duck. We played a couple of gigs with this line-up - all covers - but didn't take things too seriously. This is a picture of us playing at Teddington village hall on New Year's Eve 1990 - the show that hooked me onto playing live as it went down so well. (The audience was very drunk, as I recall.)
Dave, Derren and Matt all left for university, so my next project was 'Richie O’Square’s English Biscuit Assortment', a short lived affair featuring Richard and Hugh and my girlfriend’s sister’s boyfriend on lead guitar. This picture of Rich and Hugh was taken at a rehearsal:
The one performance we managed with this band was headlining a festival in Winchcombe to a crowd of over 200 - which seemed like quite a big deal at the time. I was playing an Epiphone Les Paul copy at this point, attempting (and failing) to emulate Peter Green.
'Bespoke Overcoat' came next, but the less said about this line-up the better. The plan was to invest in a PA system by getting a loan from the bank which we would repay by playing wedding gigs. Unfortunately, Richard and I recruited a couple of blokes who we barely knew and they soon deserted us and left us with the debt.
Between 1992 and 1995 I played in various bands in Cheltenham, but none of them were that serious and I can’t even remember their names. This was my 'Buddhist phase' and I moved to Bristol to live in a Buddhist commune for six months. I was listening to things like Neil Young, Nick Drake, Pentangle and Davy Graham and mainly playing acoustic guitar. I busked quite a lot and hitched back and forth from Bristol to Cheltenham on the M5. Cheltenham’s biggest band at this time was The Nilon Bombers, who I saw play a couple of times. The lyrics to their brilliant song, ‘Superstar’, are written in my notebook in the picture above.
In 1996 I spent a year studying American Literature at a university in Los Angeles. While I was there I formed a band with German multi-talented, multi-instrumentalist, Tom Moose. I played bass and sang in this group, although I can’t remember its name. Any ideas, Tom? Here's a pic:
We played wholly covers (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Hendrix, U2) but when I returned to England I started writing songs again. After a year of coming up with a load of rubbish, they slowly started getting better and in 1998 I finally produced some decent ones. I realised they weren’t yet strong enough to record and release but I performed some of them live with a reformed Black Toad '78. Richard’s songwriting had also improved by this time and the reunion concert he, Hugh and I performed together at this time was almost good!
My next project was 'The Dandelions'. I really wanted to be in a band with a female lead singer, like early Fairport Convention with Judy Dyble and Sandy Denny, so I placed an advert in a music shop in Cheltenham for like-minded musical souls. This was how I met my musical compadre, Paul Kench. Paul was then a young Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and Guns 'n Roses fan and he qualified as a genuine axe man. We recruited fifteen year old Jamie Jordan on drums and used his school’s music studio to record our first demo. Check out ‘Upside Down’, which I later released on the demos and out-takes compilation, 'Antheology' in 2008:
The Dandelions had potential but it never really clicked with the female vocalists we managed to recruit, even though we did find some great singers. By this time I had written some songs that ended up on later Blake albums – ‘Man of 1000 Years’ and ‘Circles’ are two that I recall.
After the sad demise of The Dandelions – brought about following an embarrassing gig in Cheltenham where chords and lyrics were forgotten and our female singer walked off – 'Karmatruffle' (sometimes 'Karma Truffle') arrived by accident. I had got into the music of The Bevis Frond through my friend Magda McCaffry who lent me a copy of their ‘Live at the American Music Hall’ CD. This album blew my mind and I started buying everything by The Frond that I could lay my hands on. When Magda suggested we should form a group which played solely originals and Bevis Frond covers, I jumped at the idea. We recruited my friend Amanda Ranson to play drums – she wasn’t an experienced player but taught herself to play ‘Mo Tucker style’ – and Magda and I shared vocal duties, with her on bass and me on guitar. I have a copy of an early gig we did with this line-up on cassette somewhere. Interspersed with The Frond covers (‘Lord Plentiful Reflects’/‘Anodyne’/‘Maybe’) were songs Magda and I had written. We performed early versions of ‘A Better Way’ and ‘Such a Shame’ and Magda wrote ‘Without You’ and ‘Astronaut’ that also became regulars in the Karmatruffle set.
My personal life, however, was in a bit of a mess by this point. I was living in a one-roomed bedsit in Cheltenham following the break-up of my relationship with my fiancé. Although, with hindsight, it had clearly been coming for some time, I was devastated when it happened. I channelled my angst into writing songs and ended up with so many that I decided to record a solo album. The album that was to be Solomon’s Tump was recorded on a borrowed Tascam eight track recorder in my bedsit. It was great fun to finally make a record. Inspired by The Bevis Frond, I realised that you could get away with lo-fi recording at home if you could play all the parts. Of course, my neighbours were none too pleased when I started to record the drum tracks, so I booked into a studio to finish these off. I produced an initial run of 50 copies of the CD which I gave away to family and friends. Little did I know that this would lead to my first (and only) proper recording contract.
Magda and I decided that we needed to expand on the three piece Karmatruffle line-up and Paul and Jamie from The Dandelions returned to the fold; the latter after Amanda decided that her drumming skills weren’t up to scratch – a view I disagreed with her strongly about. We started adding a few non-Frond covers in to the set after Paul and Jamie’s return – Love’s ‘A House Is Not A Motel’, The Undertones’ ‘You’ve Got My Number’ – while Magda and I continued writing songs. This is the notebook I kept at this time with the lyrics to 'Falling' sketched out, later released on the By The Banks of the A350 album.
This picture was taken at Greenbelt Festival in Cheltenham where we performed in 2004; l-r me, Magda, Paul and Jamie:
Paul then started going out with a French lady he’d met somewhere who happened to be the owner of a London indie label. Good work, Paul! He gave her a copy of Solomon’s Tump and she asked me to sign to her label, Ecto Music. I wasn’t keen to embark on a solo career at this point, however – I liked the security of being in a band – and I persuaded the label to sign Karmatruffle instead.
We embarked on recording a three track E.P. as our first release. We chose three of my songs: ‘A Better Way’, ‘She’s Not All That’ and ‘Let It Go’ – the latter had featured on Solomon’s Tump. This, unfortunately, was to be a painstaking process which lasted over a year. I do not know exactly how many hours we spent in the recording studio but it was ridiculous. The label’s theory was that the production had to be ‘perfect’ and so hours were dedicated to recording the drum tracks and then hours were spent on recording vocal lines one at a time. I tried to explain that The Beatles had recorded Please Please Me in one day but the label owner simply didn’t believe it was true. It was a draaaaaaggg. By the end of it we had a ‘perfect’, polished, anodyne sounding three track E.P. and a whole year when we could have been getting out on the road performing was wasted. The record, when it was eventually released, needless to say, bombed. We toured clubs up and down the country promoting it, sometimes on the same bill as The Arctic Monkeys. However, they were playing the sound of today and our sunshine sixties retro rock was yesterday’s news. I was wearing flares and an Afghan coat to gigs – not really what the indie scene was looking for. This is Karmatruffle performing at the O2 Bar Academy in Birmingham in 2005:
Magda quit the band following our first promotional tour. She, for some reason, didn’t enjoy driving four hours to play to three people in a club in Manchester and then getting back home at five in the morning! We placed an advert in the NME and recruited Sarah Anthony from Harlow on bass. She was a great bassist but living as she did in Harlow this presented logistical difficulties when it came to rehearsing, particularly now Jamie was at university in Birmingham and I had got married and moved to Wiltshire.
We soon split from the label and self-released our debut album, ‘What You Do Comes Back To You’ on our own Rockhopper Records ‘label’. Another promotional UK tour followed and, although this was much more successful than the previous one, I decided at a Welcome Break service station on the M4 at three in the morning on my way back from a gig in Cambridge, that I’d had enough of being in a band. This story is related in my song ‘Goodbye Cruel Pop World’:
And this is the final Karmatruffle set list from our last gig in 2006:
So there you have it. That’s when my career as a solo artist began. I recorded and released my second solo record as Blake, ‘Final Whistle’, later in 2006 and have been steadily recording and releasing albums ever since. Of course, I do still play in a band, and have been since 2007, but this band is called 'All You Need Is The Beatles', a Beatles tribute band, and we get paid money for gigs and now when I’m in the Welcome Break at three in the morning it’s because it’s worth it! Paul is George Harrison and he and my friends Joe Brown (Paul McCartney; ex Kat Baloo and Milk) and Chris Scrivens (Ringo Starr; ex Mild Mannered Janitors and Whole Lotta Led) have been helping me out with my solo albums since 2010. When I perform live as Blake, it’s invariably with Paul, Joe and Chris supplying the backing, as it is on December 8th when I am releasing my new album, Jubilee, and we are performing a live concert which will be streamed on my page on Facebook. Hope to see you there!