Whilst I love old pictures (and new ones) of Mill Hill, I have always been far more interested in the stories behind them. That is one of the reasons that I love recounting the stories from local characters such as Richard Wilkinson, with his tales of Mill Hill in the 50's, 60's and 70's. Richard collated a list of local history sites that is well worth checking out. I've recently written a book about the history of the studios and my band. What I didn't include (maybe I should have) were some of the tales of the nefarious characters that used to frequent my music studios in the earlier days. These days we seem to have a far more respectable customer base. But these stories have long been told on drunken get togethers of old studio partners and customers. Here are a few of my favourites. No names named
The good old days at the Complex. Tony, Ernie (RIP) and Darren pic.twitter.com/ImlcTt48mX— MillHillMusicComplex (@MillHillMusicCo) December 18, 2019
One of our best customers in the mid 1990's was a rather interesting chap, who started managing a bunch of herberts, who were actually a rather decent Mod band. He'd taken them under his wing and 'had contacts'. he thought the time was right for a new "The Who". One day, after paying for a rehearsal, he asked myself and Ernie Ferebee (my old business partner) for a beer. He wanted to pick our brains on what we thought he should be doing to increase the bands chances of success. Once we got chatting it became pretty clear that not all of his cash had been acquired entirely legally, although given his name, we were not entirely surprised. His family were rather well known in certain circles. Anyone who has seen Slade in Flame will recognise the management technique. He was pretty good company, with many tales of nefarious deeds, most of which were shockingly believable. Ernie himself came from a rather well known East End family. His father Nod had been a bare knuckle boxer in the 1930's and was often used as security when bullion was being transported to and from the Bank of England, his reputation was built on the fact that no one had ever even tried to rob the money on his watch. Even when he was in his 70's, he was a fearsome man, although always great company with me. Ernie and his brothers were 6' 6" but Nod would pick them up and bang their heads together when they annoyed him. Ernie and the said chap were discussing tales of dodgy goings on. It turned out that an acquaintance in the motor industry of Ernie had fixed the said gentlemans car once and found someones nose in the ash tray. When asked what to do with it he replied "throw it in the bin, he won't be needing it". There had been a well known gangster who had been shot in the head recently. Ernie mentioned it and our new friend said "Never shoot them dead, once the funeral has gone it gets forgotten, if you cut their nuts off, then they'll spend the rest of their lives spreading the message not to mess with you". I think both Ernie and I clenched our buttocks together rather tightly at that. Sadly the band didn't last very long. They were rather good. The gentleman in question passed away several years ago. Much to my surprise of natural causes, surrounded by his family.
The Bank Robber.
Another interesting customer was a convicted bank robber. He'd shared a cell with the previously mentioned chap. When he was released, the above mentioned chap asked him to get a band together for a record label he was planning to set up. He recruited Graham Ramsey, the False Dots drummer and a bevvy of other musicians. He was actually a pretty damn good rock singer and the rehearsals were progressing well. One day, out of the blue, I got a visit from a Police Officer. The Officer said "I need to have a word with you, you've been given as an alibi by a suspect in a robbery". When I enquired, it turned out it was the singer in Graham's new band. The officer said that I could confirm his wherebouts between 7pm and 11pm on the day in question. As I'd opened and closed the studio on the said day, I checked the diary and said "Yes, I can confirm I let the band in at 7pm and out at 11pm and he was there". He was a larger than life character and I was 100% sure. The officer then said "What about at 8.15pm?". I said "I wasn't there at the time, but if bands book a session, it would be pretty unusual if they didn't have a rehearsal and they definitely had as they played me a number they'd been working on when I came to lock up". The officer then showed me CCTV pictures and said "Do you recognise this man?". It was as clear as daylight that it was the singer of the band. The time was 20.14. All I could say was "Well it looks like him,but they definitely rehearsed and I took the payment for the session". I showed the officer the records and diaries. He informed me that I could go to prison if I was lying. I was rather affronted and said "how the hell could I forge these?". I suggested that he spoke to the band. The next time I saw Graham, he told me that the singer was back inside. Despite his watertight alibi, they'd arrested him and faced with the pictures, he'd owned up. He'd turned up for the rehearsal and just after 8pm, he'd told the band he had "dodgy guts and needed to go to the bog" and suggested they play through a number. His brother had picked him up, they'd sped around to the off licence in the Green Man and robbed it with a gun, zooming back to the studio. The band hadn't even really noticed he'd been gone. He might have got away with it, but a member of the public took his brothers car number and with the CCTV footage, he was bang to rights. Interestingly, despite having nicked a couple of hundred pounds in cash and some whisky, he'd claimed he was skint when it came time to pay for the rehearsal and promised to pay the rest of the band next week. This was actually a good thing as it meant I was in the clear with regards to receiving stolen cash. An interesting footnote was that a couple of years later, the copper who'd interviewed me had turned up at the studio and bought some strings. I asked him about the whole thing. He'd said that the reason he'd got caught was he took off his mask as he left the shop and this was right in front of the CCTV camera. He said that at first he thought myself and the band were in on it, but after interviewing everyone and when the truth came out, he realised that the whole thing had been carefully orchestrated. He said "It was a lot of effort to go to for a few quid and a couple of bottles of whisky".
Now you may think that all of the dodgy customers are male. This is far from the case. There was one extremely beautiful and capable singer who used to frequent the studio. She was one of the most charming and alluring women I've ever met. One day she turned up and said "can you possibly give me a receipt for the last six months studio sessions?". This is a very normal request, but she then said "Look, I'm having some problems with the record label, they are being difficult. Could you put the receipt for the whole day rather than three hours on these dates. I'll be booking more sessions and some recordings soon.". Unlike today, where we have an online booking system and it's all electronically recorded, in the 1990's it was a paper diary. As our sympathy was with an artist being mucked about by the label (and because she was very persuasive), we agreed. She then booked up a couple more sessions. She then said "Listen the label require four copies". I asked who they should be made out to. She went in her purse, got flustered and said "Oh, I've left the details at home don't worry about that I'll fill it in". So we left it blank. I thought no more of it. About three weeks later, she told us she was moving to the states and bought me a bottle of Scotch. There was a major tour there and other opportunities. This was great news. I thought no more of it until about three weeks later. A very disgruntled gentleman turned up and demanded to see me. "Are these receipts genuine?" he enquired. "Who are you?". I was informed that he was the artists manager. I said "Yes" and said I could show him the diaries and asked why. He said that she'd moved to the states and knocked him for a fortune. I asked how. It seems that a lot of money had been advanced to book up recording studio time, that had to be "Paid for in advance" for a good price. She'd scarpered with the money. I asked "Did you have a contract with her?". He said "It's still with her lawyers". I simply replied "Oh Dear". After he departed, I couldn't help sniggering. Ernie said "Mugs and their money are soon parted, but we later admitted at the pub that she was rather convincing. Imagine our surprise over the the next couple of weeks when two other chaps turned up telling the same story. We kept pretty quiet and feigned surprise. We calculated that in total she'd cleared about £60,000 in cash. A couple of years later, I was having a beer with Ernie and out of the blue he said "You know what, she wasn't as clever as she thought as she was a great singer and really could have made a career out of it". When I considered the whole thing, it was true. It is funny how many of these scammers would have actually made far more money if they'd put their efforts into actually being artists.
The "Owner's best mate".
I don't make a big song and dance of owning the studios. It is far less hassle to keep quite and sit in the corner most of the time. When Ernie was studio manager, we had one customer who was always trying to get a good deal. One day I was sitting at the desk trying to fix a guitar, when the said individual emerged. He wanted to book three days recording for a project he was working on. As is often the way, there is a discussion as to how much the session would cost. As Ernie was explaining why he couldn't give the discount that was being asked for, the said individual replied "Listen, I'm the best mate of the owner of this place and he told me that I'd be properly looked after". Ernie shot me a glance and I started to chuckle. As I'd been doing some building work, I was in overalls (running studios isn't all glamour). I just sat back and thought I'd listen to the tale. Ernie said "That's interesting, how well do you really know him?" The response "We were around their last night, our kids go to the same school". That was quite interesting as my eldest, Maddie was only two years old.
Ernie then said "Well, we'll book it in at the full rate and then when he comes in I'll ask him". At this, he seemed to be quite pleased. About a week later, a rather amusing thing happened. Another customer of old turned up. He said "You took a booking from a mate of mine for recording, can you do anything on the price?". Ernie was a bit shocked (I wasn't in the shop). Ernie enquired why. Eventually the tale of woe emerged. The guy who'd booked the session had been lead to believe that the the other customer owned the studios. They had been doing some business together, and to enhance his credibility, one had mislead the other to believe that he was the owner, but he didn't spend much time at the studios as the team did a good job. When he started pleading that if a discount wasn't applied, he'd lose face, Ernie said "well why don't you pay for half of it then?". At this, he said "Why should I?". Ernie replied "Well if you don't you'll look like a prize plum". Eventually, he paid £50 towards the session. He would probably have gotten away with the whole thing, apart from the fact that when the recording was taking place, it turned out that one of the musicians he'd recruited was a friend of mine. AS the recording was progressing, he mentioned that he'd got a discount as he knew the owner, at which my friend said "I didn't know you knew Rog?". The reply of "Who's Rog" was met with "He's the owner". At that they both trudged down to see Ernie. The customwer who booked the session enquired "Who actually owns this business?" Ernie replied "Rog does". Then he asked. And what does my friend ******* do here? Ernie, ever the diplomat, replied "Oh, he is out number one salesman, he brings loads of business in". Ernie explained that he always gets his customer a great discount, so we let him say he's a co-owner. Ernie then said, "He got you a pretty good discount didn't he?" that seemed to defuse the situation.
About two weeks later, I was in the shop when the said "Owner" popped in. Ernie cracked up when I said "Evening boss". He looked a little sheepish but after that it became a bit of a standing joke.
These days, we are all far more respectable. I miss the old days and the old characters. Sadly, all of the characters mentioned in this have either passed away or disappeared off the face of the earth.