Monday, 3 June 2013

Jasper Carrott: a long time ago, in a folk galaxy far far away…

Before Jasper Carrott became an 80s TV fixture, he was an agent, booking folk acts countrywide, working the clubs. Then, a throwaway comedy song you couldn't play on the radio changed it all.

It may seem strange – especially if you saw the Made in Brum tour - to think about Jasper Carrott as part of the Midlands folk scene. But he most definitely was. At the show, I asked Jasper if he would be interested in talking about how he got started, and how it was in the Midlands folk scene of the 70s. 

Jasper was interested, and he graciously reeled off a positive goldmine of stories. We know the old folk club days are long gone. But there is ample compensation to be found with the new breed of 21st century folk musicians, experimenting, collaborating, and taking huge risks to produce inspiring and thrilling new music. But it wouldn't - couldn't - have happened without the people who ran those old clubs getting things rolling in the first place. Jasper's part of that. 

First steps

When you first stepped onstage, with a guitar --- where and when was it? 
About 1968. I worked at Butlins. I wasn’t a redcoat, I was a duffel coat. I started a folk club for the staff, because there wasn’t anything to do. A lot of them had guitars and stuff. I’d been interested in Folk music – I used to go the Jug Of Punch, all the clubs in town – I really rated guys like Harvey Andrews and Diz Disley. And I loved the comedy side, the entertainment side of folk music. 
Well, everyone knows you as a comedian… but how did you mix the two together? 
I’ve got an odd sense of humour. I was introduced to really good comedy when I was 18 or 19. Guys like Tom Lehrer, Shelley Burman… then I came into early Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart. And I loved all that. The Smothers Brothers were signed to the BBC in the 60s for a 13-part series. And they lasted …two. Nobody found them in the slightest bit funny. I loved them. 
So that’s how you started? 
I came back from Butlins. Folk at that time was quite traditional. The Ian Campbell folk group – very big, the Spinners – more commercial. Cut a long story short, I started a folk club with the son of the caretaker at the Acocks Green Conservative club. It was very successful. I did about three weeks… but then they sacked me. It happens.
My flatmate said hang on – the Old Moseleyans association has a clubhouse, and they’re in dire financial l trouble. We could get the room for free. Why don’t we take the folk club and start it there? 

The Boggery

So there was a two week gap, and I started the Boggery Folk Club in 69…
 Where did the name come from? 
Ah. When you’re 23… Bogs are very funny. It’s like poo… The Boggery – I always said it was neither one nor the other… But it stuck, and it wasn’t really rude. And it was a very successful club, right from the off. We had about 90 people first night, and within three or four weeks, it was packed out. It ran for about 15 years; I stuck with it for about five. 
So you were doing the booking… who did you get in? 
The first act? I had Diz Disley under contract. He was very big, and I was going to use him for the opening night. But the Conservative Club, my old place, called his agent, and said he should be doing their place. The agent decided that that was a far safer bet than Jasper Carrott… and they sent him there. So I got a guy called Colin Scott. He came, and he was dynamic, pulled the place apart. And Diz Disley, who was at the other place, didn’t turn up!
I found out that Diz was very famous - for not turning up. So whenever I booked Diz for the Boggery, I always booked another act in. The first time I booked Diz, he turned up at ten o’clock. But that was OK – I knew that was going to be Diz! 
The Boggery was famous throughout the 70s, wasn’t it? 
It became an institution. I used to compere, and sing a few songs – mostly comedy songs – and I realised that if you’re going to compere, you got to be light-hearted. So I used to go down to the Cresta Cabaret club, in Solihull – and write down the jokes of the comics… go back to the Boggery on the Monday and tell ‘em. 
I’d heard that sort of thing went on… 
Still does! But on a good night, I might come away with three or four gags I could use. Then I saw Bob Monkhouse… I must have filled in three or four double-sided foolscap pages of jokes.
And that was really how it started. I became an agent. I had an agency which got acts for other clubs. And for three years that successfully lost money – I was funding it from my work in Folk clubs. 

Stephane Grappelli

The Boggery was up and running, very establshed. Diz Disley came to me and asked if I could get any work for Stephane Grappelli. He was stuck in a hotel in Paris, busking, earning peanuts. I jumped at it. I offered, ooh, seventy quid… Diz said he’d do it for that. So I had him at the Boggery, for the first time in 25 years with a guitar-based quartet. Diz Disley, Danny Thompson on bass, and another guitarist. I had calls from everywhere. A big night. I got there early. And there was this kid – twelve, thirteen - came up, with a violin case.
‘I’ve come to see Stephane Grappelli’ he says. 'So has the rest of the world’ I replied, ‘and we’re really packed out.’
'Can I listen from the outside?’ he says. Yeah, well, OK. So I go to fetch Diz and Stephane Grappelli. As soon as he got out the car, Stephane Grappelli saw this kid, and he grabbed him and hugged him…took him inside.
So I start the show, let the kid in. Did the first half - an absolute stormer. Second half, starts up, even better. Then Stephane says ‘I’d like to introduce a friend of mine, who’s going to play with me’. It was the twelve year old kid, who got up with his violin, and spent the whole of the second half playing fiddle. Absolutely stunning. It was Nigel Kennedy. 


Seventy quid for Grappelli is one thing… What were you paying the other acts? 
A good act would be fifteen pounds. Most times twelve plus travel. A guy coming up from London would charge you One pound fifty (£1/10/- in old money) for petrol. Once I was reasonably established, after a couple of years, I would go out for about twelve pounds plus expenses. So I earned a reasonable living. I could afford a mortgage and stuff. 
So you were doing well? 
I started the agency in June, I had Harvey Andrews on the books, and in October I did 29 nights out of 31. And it went on like that. Harvey was fully booked, I was fully booked. We had a group called Decameron…. 
But that came to an end. 
Yes – a bit of a contretemps. So I left. For three months, I fulfilled my gig bookings. But I didn’t take any more gigs. Didn’t know what to do next. Then the agency came back to me – because they had more demands for me than anyone else. At that time, I’d managed to push my price up to £35, which was a LOT of money in the folk clubs. 
And where were you playing, for that money? 
All over the country. Not Scotland, Newcastle was as far as I got. But I never worked Birmingham in five years, apart from two stints where I stood in for the Ian Campbell Folk Group, and compered. Everyone thought I learned my trade in Birmingham. But I was a big fish in a tiny pond, in Liverpool, Portsmouth, Bristol… I was forever working in the Black Country, Dudley, Tettenhall… 
This was round about the time that Billy Connolly was emerging. 
I used to do his tours. I booked him in through the agency, He was 25 quid. I did about three tours for him. Then after he’d had a bit of success, he was fifty pounds. And no one would pay it – until he did the Parkinson show, and then his price went way up. 
Did that happen for you as well? 
I started managing myself. I put my fee up to seventy five pounds – and no one would pay it. No-one. Until I did a gig in Liverpool, and it was packed out. So the guy paid me my £35 plus expenses, and said, ‘When Can I have you back’. And I said ‘Well, you know the money that I’m charging?' And he said, ’Yeah, I’ve heard about that, but I’m not paying it.’ So I said ‘Well, I’m not coming!’
We went back and forth, and in the end he said he would guarantee me sixty pounds against ninety percent of the door. And I want ‘OK… but you tell everybody you’re paying me seventy five pounds.’ And he did. Then the money started to come in. There was only Jake Thackray charging that money at the time. 
And he was a folk megastar. 
Yes. It was going very well. But it limited the clubs I could play at, the ones that could afford me.

The Breakthrough

So what happened next? 
I had a piece of luck in 1975 – I had a hit single. And that was when I started to get national notoriety. 
Yes. Funky Moped. That got a LOT of exposure – mainly from Ed Doolan on BRMB. That song was never off his show. 
D12-28 pic from
I had a record deal, and the record company (DJM) wanted me to put a single out before the album release. I had a song – Funky Moped, from an American friend; we’d worked it together. They gave me a thousand pounds to make the single. I wanted to by a Martin D12-28 guitar – so I spent £700 on the single, and £300 on the guitar. 
Now, they go for two grand… 
And the record company said ‘What are you going to put on the B side?’
Gulp… No money left.
So I’d made a private album to sell at gigs – everyone did, it was quite lucrative – and I’d got this track called Magic Roundabout. It was a spoof song, always incredibly popular in the clubs, and probably what I was best known for, apart from Chastity Belt. And not suitable for airplay. 
So I put it on. Life was good. Got me guitar, got me single. So Ed Doolan heard Funky Moped, very Birmingham-oriented, got me in, he played it… and for three weeks, Funky Moped sold very, very well. But the chart people wouldn’t give it a chart placing, because it was too local – the sales were all in Birmingham. And after three weeks it was dead in the water.
Except… two (club) disk-jockeys from Essex, went up to London, to my record company (DJM), and they both bought a hundred copies each, of Magic Roundabout. And DJM said – why are you buying a hundred copies each?
 It was to sell to their audience. When they took a break, they played the record – and everybody loved it and wanted to buy it. But it wasn’t in the shops anymore. So that’s why they came up to DJM.
DJM, to their everlasting credit, decided to re-work the single. So they mailed the single out to every DJ on their books, asking them to play It in the interval. And it took off. Through discos!
Eventually it charted as a double A-side, at 14, in the chart for fifteen weeks. Funky Moped sold 35 thousand copies. Magic Roundabout sold 840 thousand… 
And it cost pennies to record. 
Nothing to record, really. So I did Funky Moped on Top Of The Pops. I really didn’t want to do it. I sent myself up. White Suit, no guitar, Vegas routine… all my mates thought it was hysterical. Everyone else thought I was a twat. And every eighteen months it comes up again. It’ll be on my tombstone. 
But that’s what really started the ball rolling. 
Yes. It opened up a lot of doors. But all those years, seven years of slog, meant I could handle it all. There’s no substitute for the groundwork. I’d done it all. Missed the last train, slept on floors. Great experience. That was at the peak of Folk clubs as they were then. Wonderful people. Jonathan Kelly was probably the finest singer-songwriters I’ve ever seen.
We had five years at the Boggery, and it was all about entertainment. I was always a bit sceptical about really traditional folk, but eventually I came to really love it. There was such a wealth of talent. Noel Murphy, Derek Brimstone, Maureen Kennedy Martin. We had so many people. We tried all different things. A duo called Gary and Vera…she clog-danced. The crowd went bananas. 
It’s interesting – the politics that drove folk in the fifties and sixties - The Seegers - 
Ewan McColl… 
That was old-school fifties communism in the grand tradition – Ian Campbell, for example – and there is still a strong political dimension to contemporary folk, even if it’s broadened out. That and a respect for traditional working class values. 
But I was one of the guys that tended to spoil that! I had the jokes and patter. 
The bull in the china shop! 
I’m afraid so. Not something I’m desperately proud of. But I probably should have had a bit more respect for it, if I’m absolutely honest. But I did get that respect, and we did feature it at the Boggery, much more than in the very early days.
Jasper Carrott's website
Contemporary Folk listings from LiveBrum 

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1 comment:

Malcolm Alexander said...

Just been looking up the old Cresta Club in Solihull. The reason was I found an old photo of my wife and I, with my late uncle and my aunt (who is now 85). It would be obout 52 years ago, or a little more, around the time we were married.

Great times a good meal and night out with great performances from various starts, both new and old. There doesn't seem to be anything quite like that these days, but we had great timews.

Malcolm Alexander