Pigbag vs Dr Calculus
by Roger Freeman
We both went to sophisticated sounding schools, Chris Hamlin to Bromsgrove private while I was at George Dixon Grammar, Birmingham. These did not save us in 1974 from exiting without enough qualifications to progress in their eyes, in my case the headmaster suddenly taught a class for the first time. He changed from someone we all spent five years avoiding to a practical type explaining how to fill in something called a tax return. Even worse was talk about the excitement of working in factories and on assembly lines, wide-eyed horror was my only reaction. A couple of weeks earlier to this I had, as usual, copied whatever my older brothers were doing and taken my art class produce to Bournville School of Art next to Cadbury’s chocolate factory. They now got in touch to explain there was a vacancy on their A Level Art course starting in September and would I be interested, a few days after the headmaster’s special lesson I pressed the buzzer outside his door and a light came on with the word Enter.
“Freeman! Have you decided which company to apply for?”
“I have just been offered a place at Bournville…”
“Chocolate factory – excellent.”
“No, art college.”
Wide-eyed horror etc.
Exactly the same was happening to Chris, I imagine, and it was pointed out that a place on the course was conditional on attending evening classes to gain the necessary entrance requirements. The very first week of term has me and Chris sitting next to each other in a classroom to retake O Level English, he has longer hair than most and is wearing a slightly shiny red ski jacket, very continental. This is proved correct when he gets out his holiday snaps from Greece and an enquiry reveals he has been visiting his girlfriend in Athens. We discover it is the same bus route down the Bristol Road to our respective houses, his in Selly Park near the university while mine is in Edgbaston by the cricket ground. I explain that it is a gigantic Victorian house that has seen better days and situated on the Pershore Road, also I am with Ma ‘n’ Pa and three older brothers. This sounds similar to Chris’s situation and he says he must call around sometime.
The Birmingham suburb of Bournville really does smell of chocolate thanks to nearby Cadbury’s, deep breaths as we cross the Linden Road to another building. We met up with Dave Jary who was friends with my brother and has stayed on and the three of us realise that at school we all frowned as we noticed teachers and pupils repeating themselves. It got to the point where we knew what they were going to say next, now at college we took it upon ourselves to deliberately say the opposite to what everyone else said. Fellow art students coming out with the inevitable Hi! would receive an exaggerated Ellor! in a northern accent. Stock phrases that were about to finish a sentence, we would cut into with the opposing conclusion to create confusion all round. Dave was a master at this, being two years older and he probably did not have enough qualifications to be at college either. Not only did Chris and me fail the exams a second time round but our three A Level Art exam results were the worst. Like the headmaster’s office all over again, we were invited up to the principal’s to be told we could not continue onto the following year’s Degree Foundation course. Then one of those last-minute mysteries happened, someone with connections pulled some strings and the next thing we know it’s hello to the Foundation course in September. We never did pass the O Level exams to be there in the first place and promised to sit them again if we ever got to do degrees.
Our art consisted of pencilling, crayoning and wire sculptures formed around any object we could find. Dave’s attempt took all day only for said object to fall over, taking his wire construct with it – cue the hysterics. More laughter when an American art book caption in the silent library was pointed out to me: Still Life with Cookies, for some reason this did it for me and we were ejected forthwith. Chris continued our manifesto to not do the same as everyone else, rejected wire sculptures and proceeded to take photographs of empty tennis shoes walking about the campus. “But is it ART?” became his catchphrase to any subject for years afterwards. Music at this time consisted of Midland’s Heavy Metal with vinyl being passed over the beans on toast in the college canteen. All of a sudden, it’s The Bay City Rollers with three-buttoned Oxford Bag trousers and the worst haircuts imaginable resting on people’s ears, we were beginning to frown again. Dave mentioned to Chris my house next to the Warwickshire County Cricket ground and after night school Chris stayed on the bus down to Edgbaston. On entering he snorted out loud at the sight of second-hand musical instruments everywhere, these had built up over several years thanks to my brothers buying them on the cheap from the Birmingham Evening Mail. Added to this stockpile were my dad’s 78 rpm records – Reginald Dixon, Gracie Fields, comedy speech and one comprising entirely of uncontrollable laughter. Mixed in with these were vinyl singles, LPs, a wind-up gramophone, record players and a collection of reel-to-reel tape recorders of varying ages.
Against one wall sat a piano with optional drawing pins in the hammers for that harpsichord effect, next to this, a harmonium organ with towering ornamental carvings rising up on top and, crammed in the corner, a drum kit that would occasionally get upgraded. It being a Victorian house, the latest electrical wiring was of the two-pin plug variety without the third earth-pin, plugging second-hand guitars into second-hand amps were accompanied by the loudest buzzing sounds ever. Finishing the collection were brass and other wind instruments, a banjo and the crowning glory: a monumental double bass. I sat at the piano and played as fast as possible as many notes as possible, an explanation was called for. Growing up through the 1960s and 70s was spent watching three older brothers buy in musical instruments and work out how to play them. Of course, I am going to copy everything they do including stealing or mimicking all the tunes they invent without having to do the work myself. Speeding the playing up was partly not having the patience to wait for the end. Chris and me now did our pattern recognition thing – we both carried out chores in a rapid way due to sharing houses with a lot of relatives and getting out of their way so they could use the facilities.
We discussed our musical tastes, somewhere in the back of our minds was a warped liking of how contemporary or trad jazz musicians would play faster and faster and then cross over a line, lose control of themselves and basically go, well, crazy. I invited Chris along to the Waterworks Jazz Club off the Hagley Road the next time I went which confirmed our theory as we sat in the corner of a packed room. The trad jazz music began to sound like an aural version of The Keystone Cops at the pace they were going. Better still was the out-of-time crowd trying to dance by flailing about and jumping up and down, there was a strange force bordering on madness. The interest in jazz came about because of the 1960s, never mind Elvis and Rock and Roll, here’s Acker Bilk with the bowler hats and stripy waistcoats. 1962 had the young Freemans dressed up as Acker and his Paramount Jazz Band ‘playing’ pretend instruments in front of a stage made from large plyboards, I was behind a sort of drum kit with those 78s nailed up at the back. Then there were the seventies and a trip along to Birmingham Town Hall to see the Jacque Loussier Trio play jazzed-up Bach. This had a big effect and after a school music lesson seeming to consist of standing up and singing one note, me and two friends asked if we could come back after four and add drums and bass to the teacher’s piano. The answer was a firm NO as Health and Safety says if there were no staff about, the place might catch fire. We took this as a compliment on our musical abilities. The nearest we got to putting out a record at this time was to paint our trio’s name over a Jacque Loussier LP cover.
Away from this side project we had, at home, been taping our efforts for years and these recordings were given a new lease of life with the acquisition of a machine that could run the tape back faster. Suddenly, out jumped really sharp playing and what technical prowess, haw haw. Starting by miming to records with the volume up grew into getting hands on proper instruments and our capturing daft versions onto reels of brown quarter-inch tape. Even though this may have taken years it was not putting in the years or slogging away, it was getting back in the evening and making an enjoyable racket. There was no looking into the future and thinking this could be seriously useful one day. We were getting the gist of our favourite records and then playing them badly but this opened up the chances of falling into fluky new unheard structures or entertainment by accident. What would normally have then disappeared and be forgotten as we moved on was accidentally caught on tape for us to laughingly hear and play again ourselves. Amongst the large collection of 78 rpm’s were those 1940s and 50s comedy speech acts taken from stage or screen routines and redone in the studio, these were not what would be called sketches but lasted for some time. Taking their lead, we talked off the top of our heads with the extra bonus of being able to listen to the squeaky speeded-up playback.
Added to the mounting piles of tape boxes were off-air radio recordings of any music or dialogue we thought ‘not altogether there’. Guffawing at what had gone on in the past now went up a notch as we discovered contemporary jazz where ‘not altogether there’ had progressed to ‘out there’, particularly when it came to soloing. Hearing it live could be experienced at the Grand and Strathallan hotels, Birmingham where actual American musicians passed through on occasions. On Saturday mornings I would catch the bus into the city centre and head up the escalators of Lewis’s department store to a top floor vinyl album cove hidden in the corner. Surprisingly, for middle of the road Lewis’s, spotted in between the easy listening was that modern jazz stuff, this was either there by mistake or had been ordered in by a subversive avant-garde shop assistant. Bournville nervousness had set in as the degree foundation course headed for the summer of ‘76 conclusion. Degree course? Why not? We attended interviews at all the obvious London colleges, Dave got in on three years’ worth of interior design and then watched the spectacle of me trying unsuccessfully to do similar with fine art. Back at Birmingham New Street station we stepped off the train and my folder proceeded to dump all the drawings along the platform, the collapsing wire sculpture scenario (reprisal). News came in of Chris being able to start fashion at Cheltenham, by my third rejection my mind was mixed up and I was in the last roll of the saloon. THEN, I do not think any strings were pulled but my fourth and final chance at avoiding the real world was accepted by Wolverhampton Polytechnic. Our final weeks for some reason saw everyone moved away from the smell of Cadbury’s chocolate to glorious Gas Street canal basin. Here, in what looked like an old city centre office block, we finished the final term by stealing each other’s artistic ideas – another form of education.
After every match Warwickshire County Cricket Club was left with tons of waste deposited by the crowd. They collected all of this up and drove it across their car park to leave in what they thought at first was a secluded spot, the by-now aromatic mountain was in fact piling up next to the high fence at the end of the garden. Long summers were spent ambushing the staff with water-filled washing up bottles until one day the Freeman brothers got soaked as out came hidden WCCC bottles. They think it’s all over. It should have been by the 1976 season when we were way too old for this, but in a final goodbye I grabbed the trombone from the collection and it was so loud the noise came over on a televised game. Back in schooldays they suggested trombone lessons without any luck, I thought: What is it with trombones? Childhood in Edgbaston was over and so I went down the garden with a chair and drew the scene looking back at the house.
Wolverhampton in the autumn made me call into a Birmingham army and navy store and buy a pristine donkey jacket on the way. This sounds familiar: ‘A place on the course is conditional on attending evening classes to gain the necessary entrance requirements.’ It was O Level Maths this time and I only completed one lesson, I did not say anything and no one else said anything. Presumably paperwork showed I had been sent off to night classes and it was never mentioned again. The art and design building was a gigantic 1970s block on the ring road next to the Molineux. Fine Art painting and sculpture had the top two floors and as wire sculptures were so last year, I carried on with precision drawing and painting. By the end of three years I was, of course, chucking huge cans of expensive oil paint over everything, relatives looking at what I had done were probably thinking: what had I done? Rent of £10 a week could get you a ground floor flat then which is what I had in the Bradmore area, if walking there, instead of chocolate in the air, it was yeast courtesy of Banks’s brewery at Chapel Ash. The early precision from drawing and painting affected the interior design with the living room consisting of one chair, one table and one radio. A ‘what if’ occurrence happened when Chris Hamlin called in with a great friend from Cheltenham while I was out and cracked up over my minimalism, anything to do with Cheltenham was not meant to be yet.
New Liverpudlian acquaintances Gus, Jim and Alan covered a wide range of subject matter with Gus starting to construct ever larger bamboo-framed canvases tied on with string. He would mix up buckets of sawdust with acrylic paint and, unlike Jackson Pollock on the floor, attempt to splatter the concoction onto the vertical target attached the wall. It became almost impossible to find him at the end of each day, his indistinguishable paint-covered face and clothes only gave the game away when he decided to move. Asbestos was found in the building and we were all sent across the ring road to the main polytechnic site while it was dealt with. Confused chemistry and engineering students thought the painters and decorators had turned up, they then got slightly worried when Gus took his self-expressionism to a new level by setting fire to his creations. We were reliably informed by those studying chemistry that, due to the colour of the flames, they could determine it was indeed acrylic and burning at a certain temperature. We thanked them for their input and went to the campus refectory for a cuppa with smoke rising from our clothing. Cups of tea and coffee in the refectory plus the newly completed coffee bar were added to as three years passed with pasties and then proper dinners, finally, the four of us went too far and became teetotal. While everyone else was getting waylaid on subsidised booze, we had become REALLY serious about our ‘art’. Worryingly, we started going in at weekends, naturally ending with academia beans and chips before they kicked us out.
Evenings back at my low-maintenance flat involved sitting in a chair crouched next to the radio, this was not because of any illicit broadcasts but me trying to hear through the crackling atmospherics of the analogue signals. Coming through the speaker I could just about make out the BBC World Service and the even more atmospheric Deutschlandfunk English language editions. The latter asked listeners to get in touch by post for all their scheduling details and I duly sent off for them. Through the letter box from Cologne dropped envelopes full of information and I knew exactly the upcoming itinerary, they kept arriving at an amazing rate and the empty accommodation was filling up just fine. But I did not know how to cancel this and left them to it when I moved out, the house has now gone – probably under the weight of all that post. The asbestos had been removed and we were back on the huge seventh floor throwing cans of paint about. Down the end of one corridor, however, was a quiet corner where Jim practised his ‘darch aarzz.’, he was quick to point out he was from Wallasey but my general opinion, anyway, was the Liverpool accent was ‘in.’ I tried a version to make us a quartet but Brummie phrases would slip out. Strangely they never mentioned The Beatles, I suppose if you grew up in the Liverpool area in the 1960s, there was nothing left to say – you had one over everyone else musically.
Jim had got hold of portable partition walls and recreated his living room, or so he said, maybe he was saving a bit of money and pretending to leave in the evenings for ‘his accommodation.’ Walking in on what he had built was a visual panic attack, all surfaces facing out of the primary red box were complimentary green with a by-now flickering yellow to the tops of every object inside. If he really did live here after hours perhaps he couldn’t remember The Beatles. As I moved past his installation, he noticed the extra clashing colours of my paint splat overalls took it to the fourth dimension. He asked if I could disturb the art work again and walk over the furniture while he videoed it for his degree show later. This involved stepping up onto chair backs to tilt them over and then getting out the picture. After several practice runs, we did a take and then played it back. Gus wandered past to see what looked like a silent movie that had accidently jumped the timelines, there was electronic colour going everywhere. It was the same madness from years ago when stumbling onto something that could easily have been missed and then lost. This time, Jim happened to look up and catch the overalls / installation clash and instead of the fluke being captured on audio tape, he had snagged one on video.
The polytechnic sent the fine art department to Paris in the spring, Mona Lisa was boxed in and not just by the crowds gathering in a frenzy, then it was round the Museum of Modern Art and up the Eiffel Tower before lunch. Missing out on this was 3D Design Alan who had been busy while we were away constructing a metal tower. On top was attached a motorised rotating laser which, if lined up with a strip of mirrors on the walls, would produce ever-multiplying beams. He added to this a smoke machine and had developed the most cutting edge, state-of-the-art visual display, or a disco. In their infinite wisdom the Coventry equivalent of our art and design block invited Wolverhampton over to show them what we could do. Gus, Jim and me all piled-in helping Alan set up his ingenious ‘happening’, local staff and students gathered around looking impressed as he flipped the switch and faint lines crisscrossed above. Up drifted the smoke to even better effect, so much so that Alan decided to add more of the same, the sharp cutting beams started to disappear in a thick fog along with all those present. Shouting broke out from staff and security to OPEN THE WINDOWS NOW while a lecturer down the corridor, seeing smoke pouring out of a room, naturally thought fire and hit a red button.
Punk had kicked off from the start of our course and the number one place to see bands from the outside world was Club Lafayette. The Sex Pistols played but I did not go because Ithought I would catch them next time while the Angelic Upstarts lasted thirty seconds until a western-style saloon fight broke out. Before any guitars were plugged in, a DJ from the future would play The Normal’s ‘Warm Leatherette’. A ‘what if’ scene really did play out as up went advertisements for The Raincoats along with Swiss band Kleenex. “Sounds alternative – let’s go.” Warm Leatherette’sexcitement switched over to the two live bands. Although coming from an opposite direction musically, the audience just knew before a note was played that it was going to be like nothing else from the line-up names alone. Alternative is when you don’t know what is going to happen next and cannot guess what is around the corner. Nothing was predictable then including doing the music biz and recording with The Raincoats in another three years’ time. What could have topped-off the evening was future Pigbag manager Dick O’Dell doing the sound for them although he was possibly engaged with The Slits right then.
We may have been creating a splash but tutors encouraged us to put down our buckets of paint and attend official music, literature and art lectures. One included settling back to a high-quality film which must have cost a fortune. It was a one-take shot of a gate on the edge of a field that seemed to last forever and where… nothing happened, we were all dreading the sequel. Unofficially, I was shown a small sound studio by a technician and learnt to edit tape and set up equipment properly. It was in this studio that a seminar group I joined squeezed in to hear Wagner played over the large speakers at full volume. A health warning was issued beforehand and we were handed copies of the score to follow with our fingers, a giveaway of
being out of our depths were pages being turned over at the wrong time. This seminar group was run by an intellectual giant and it took a whole term to write a paragraph to the standard expected. The words coming the other way had gone past ‘the next level’ a long time ago and it was hinted that reading classic paperbacks by the following week would be useful. Things lightened up when reaching the Surrealist movement and slides of complete nutcases were projected on the wall.
More music education and there was a buzz of excitement in the air as posters proclaim the visit of a Minimalist composer, Minimalism was all the rage at the time with use of it on film soundtracks to come. A packed lecture theatre had a piano picked out by a spotlight on stage, the only snag was, while on tour, the composer had undergone a conversion to Communist propaganda songs. It all makes sense – relentless touring on the decadent western intellectual circuit can only end one way. After a purposeful stride onto stage and a solid sit down at the keyboard came an hour-long barrage of what sounded like Karl Marx singing his communist manifesto to a cockney pub piano. Lecturers started to look nervous as bewilderment spread through the theatre. At the sixty-minute mark with no end in sight, students started fleeing through the exits while those who stayed witnessed the monumental triumph of open-mouthed utter silence at curtain down. We returned to our studios trying to figure out which parts had been minimalist because none of the staff wanted to talk about it. Suddenly it was curtains for the 1979 degree course with tutors gleefully reminding us that our written thesis severely affected our final grade. Second thoughts started to creep in regarding my dissertation entitled ‘What’s the Point of Art College?’ If the subject was a bit worrying, how it was created added even more doubt. Five years without correct entry requirements to be at Bournville or Wolverhampton in the first place probably had something to do with it when the art school mantra be creative took on a whole new meaning. Inviting Gus, Jim and Alan over to the Bradmore flat was followed by asking that question ‘what was the point of art college?’ Before they could answer, a record-button on a cassette machine was pressed. As no names were used this was their chance to let it all out, having a go at everything they could think of while I turned into a newspaper editor from a 1940s Hollywood caper, knowing it was going to make great copy. Buoyed up by how it went I dashed down to Birmingham where a friend of the family offered to transcribe the taped words and get them typed (in duplicate). Finished! That wasn’t too hard. Now I realised my total input into the proceedings was to just make the enquiry at the beginning. TOO LATE – it had been handed in.
There were two great traditions to art school degree shows, the first was for all involved to attend an opening party where once paint-caked students now wore smart clothes and daintily partook in ‘wine and nibbles’. The second was to use the word juxtaposed as many times as possible when talking about the art. Above on a balcony in the dark, three Liverpudlians and a Brummie stared down on the tops of heads and kept very quiet. Weeks later word reached the top floor that the degree results had been released and there was a stampede down to administration to squint at large sheets of paper pinned to a board. By the time I got up close the place was deserted and, expecting a First plus three years at the Royal College of Art, did a cartoon double blink as Third jumped out. For some reason the image and sound of an electric meter running out of coins appeared. Shock can make decision-making very clear and I was back to a empty seventh floor to grab my by-now filthy donkey jacket and holdall full of rolled-up canvases. Trying to get a bus to Bradmore was headed off by the driver who said his was public transport and not for use of builders and their materials. But buses are like buses and in no time I was at my front door with said holdall, its contents now magically transformed from priceless creations to something to be got rid of at all costs. Like a comedy film, along came the refuse-collectors right on cue, it was probably at this point that the action slowed right down as the bag tumbled through the air and into the gaping rear of their vehicle. It sped up again as I snatched what I needed for the future and only when collapsing back into the train seat for Birmingham did the thought enter of saying goodbye to anyone. It was OK, I had their addresses and could use the post.