Monday 23 November 2015

Guest Blog - Now A Sports Bar – The Torrington, Finchley by Allen Ashley

By Allen Ashley

Now A Sports Bar
But back in the day the Torrington – or “Torrington House” as it lately styles itself – tucked like an afterthought onto the side of Lipton’s supermarket in North Finchley High Road, was the musical oasis that glittered, sweated and heaved every Sunday evening.  Sundays in the 70s were exactly like they’re always made out to be: grey; rain-soaked; “Horizon” or “The Onedin Line” on telly; most shops not allowed to open; tubes and buses on an infrequent, if they can be bothered timetable.  Sunday roast was the fulcrum of the weekend.  I might have played football up the park with my mates in the morning then stuffed myself with potatoes, Yorkshire pudding and Paxo; but by 7 o’clock that evening I was ready to meet up with my mates John and Ade and check out who was on at the Torrington that night. 

Food Orders Taken
We had our own band, of course – me on 12 string acoustic guitar, Adrian on bass and John on biscuit tin percussion.  We never progressed any further than playing very loudly in my grandmother’s living room.  The bands that graced the Torrington, however, were often on their way to somewhere, be that brief fame or oblivion.  We’d read about them in the “New Musical Express” and now they’d rolled into Finchley.  The bigger names of the day, the people whose albums we saved up for and cherished – Hawkwind, Al Stewart, Gentle Giant – would do annual tours that climaxed at Hammersmith Odeon.  The Torrington was in the league below, along with its sort of sister venue, The Hope and Anchor in Islington.  Up and coming rock stars; rhythm and blues singers; bands incorporating elements of Stevie Wonder / Bobby Womack style funk; rock ‘n’ roll revivalists…
By day and on all other evenings, the Torrington’s extra bar was a restaurant serving the Berni Inn style good quality British cuisine that would have delighted Regan and Carter from “The Sweeney”.  On the Sabbath, though, they shifted the tables out and handed over control to George: an imposing, no-nonsense Scotsman who handled all the bookings.  It was standing room only.  Walk-ups most nights but pay in advance at Christmas.  Foolishly, I once risked George’s wrath by scribbling an addition to his “Forthcoming Attractions” list.  It read something like: “20 December – Kokomo. 27 December – No gig.”  Beneath this latter, I appended: “Plus support”.  My hormone-scrambled teenage brain obviously thought it was funny at the time.  Clearly, I’d learned nothing from having been beaten up by a prefect a few years earlier when I entered “Lady Godiva” into the school swimming gala.

Party Bookings Taken
The Christmas show drew a huge crowd, promising two or three bands plus a DJ and a stripper.  We were on nodding terms with the DJ.  Think of all the Simon Bates, Gary Davis, and DLT clichés and he adhered to them.  Although, to be fair, he probably hasn’t troubled Operation Yewtree.  As for the stripper… this was my first time and I’ve blanked out a certain amount.  She was a fairly ordinary looking, long-haired white woman who did her routine pretty quickly.  No tattoos, no piercings, no Brazilian shaving, no surgery or enhancements – these were simpler times.  I spent the whole act focused on the main issue, which was: Shit, what if my mother finds out?

All England Games Shown Live
There were the bands I saw at the Torrington and the ones that I somehow inexplicably missed.  Why did I not manage to mooch along for the Sensational Alex Harvey Band?  Now, that would have been a tick-off.  But I saw Dr Feelgood in their original incarnation with mop-topped Wilko Johnson and his 1000 yard stare as scary as hell as he paced metronomically backwards and forwards whilst chopping out electrifying guitar riffs.  I saw Brinsley Schwarz complete with Nick Lowe.  I also saw hastily assembled supergroups that might include the likes of Mike Patto, Carol Grimes and Dave “I Hear You Knocking” Edmunds.  I saw The Flying Aces – a version of Welsh psych-rock pioneers Man – and I spent the whole show clutching the 12 inch cardboard LP sleeve of Deke Leonard’s album which some of them had played on and which they autographed for me in the cupboard that passed for a dressing room to the side of the barely raised stage.  Sensibly, I’d left the actual vinyl record at home for fear of damage.
I saw the Kursaal Flyers and String Driven Thing.  The list goes on.
The 1970s witnessed a massive 1950s revival.  This was apparent from the more commercial acts who filled “Top of the Pops” every week: Mud, Alvin Stardust, Showaddywaddy, Suzi Quatro and (whisper it) Gary Glitter.  In Torrington terms, pub rock meant bands who could play 3 verses, a bridge and a chorus; who could sprinkle their set with classic American rock ‘n’ roll standards such as “Route 66” or “Get Out of Denver”; who could encore with “Johnny B. Goode” with the crowd jabbing back with “Go! Go, Johnny, go!”  A night at the Torrington was a musical education in the roots of the music that I loved, that powered my bloodstream. 

Special Offers on Bottled Beers During World Cup
The biggest star I ever saw at this 100 to 150 capacity back room was Shakin’ Stevens.  This was way back when, believe it or not, he had real credibility.  Backed by his tight outfit The Sunsets, this was before he did a year in the West End playing Elvis; this was before “Green Door” and “Merry Christmas Everyone”; this was before screaming and fainting female fans; before the hypnotic leg-jerking in slacks; before the snowman jumper and other chunky knitwear.  Like fans of a lower league team who’ve drawn Arsenal or Man United in the FA Cup, John and I found our home venue “taken” that night by dozens of itinerant rockabillies: appearing as if from time capsules, Brylcreemed quiffs immaculate, dressed in leather jackets or brothel creepers, motorbikes parked outside and egos in full flow within.  It was quite a night as Shaky and his crew turned the clock back to 1956.  I’d seen him stand on top of a piano on TV during a performance of “Mean Woman Blues”.  To his credit, he attempted it that evening, even though the ceiling was pretty low, maybe 8 or 10 feet high.  The show ended shambolically with a huddle of drunken biker types mobbing what passed for a stage.  Most of us lived to tell the tale.

Smoking Area Available
I almost didn’t live to tell that tale.  One evening I was standing nodding my head in time with some rhythm and blues band or other when a guy behind me tapped me on the shoulder.  “Your coat’s on fire,” he stated laconically. 
I panicked and ripped off my blue quilted jacket to discover a perfect, expanding burn-hole caused by somebody’s lit cigarette.  Nylon can go up in seconds and I was lucky to extinguish the fire quickly.  In fact, I showed off the damage like a battle scar for the next few months.  I don’t miss smoking in pubs one bit. 

Special Offers on Selected Beers
Lager was even fizzier in those days.  Well brought up, I didn’t tend to use shop doorways on the way home but instead made my way to the public convenience in Stanhope Road that was open all hours.  It seems unthinkable now that an unstaffed gent’s could be open on a side street on a Sunday at 11pm but… more innocent times, I suppose.

Watch Premier League Games Live Here
The best group I ever saw at the Torrington was one you may never have heard of: A Band Called O.  They were a five piece with a lead singer sporting blond curly locks – like a later version of me in my twenties or like a younger Robert Plant.  His name was Pix.  I wanted to be him.  They went down a storm on their first visit with a catchy yet dreamy set and were re-booked for a rapid return.  They were later signed to a major label – CBS/Epic – and released an execrable debut LP that had been produced to vacuity.  John bought it and we listened intently.  It sounded nothing like the band we knew and, in turn, led to nothing.  Sadly, a typical tale from the time. 
When punk crashed the airwaves in the mid to late seventies, pub rock became derided and the scene shifted to spittoons and ripped out cinemas to catch – or be caught by – the happening bands.  And yet many of punk’s progenitors cut their teeth on the pub rock circuit – the aforementioned Nick Lowe, Joe Strummer in the 101ers, Ian Dury in Kilburn and the High Roads.  In a recent BBC Four documentary, Wilko Johnson spoke of driving up to the Torrington all the way from Canvey Island in order to check out the opposition.
It was a scene; now long gone.  It was a happy ritual; now long gone.  It was my youth.
Allen Ashley is an Author, Poet and Singer. For full details see Allens website . Guest blogs are always welcome at The Barnet Eye. (Allen is also a long time musical collaborator with Rog T in the False Dots). We are featuring this guest blog as part of our special series for the #SaveLondonMusic campaign.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Happy days! I also remember the bands I missed. The first group I saw at the Torry was Charlie and the Wide Boys who later released a record on MFP. I was probably still summoning up the courage to go the week before when they had Ducks Deluxe.