Monday, 9 January 2012

The 'boys' are back in town: Toby Burton talks to the Dipsticks

If you're into your rock music, you'll know that whenever you browse a gig guide these days in the press, there's always at least one band, long gone and sometimes even forgotten, that has decided to reform, often for some anniversary or other. Recent reformations include Magazine, The Specials, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Ultravox, and of course Spandau Ballet. In most cases, I'm sure it has at least as much to do with money as it has to do with nostalgia and the band members missing the fun of playing and hanging out their old buddies, turned nemeses.

But you don't have to have been in a famous band to reform it. It will just have absolutely nothing to do with money, when you do. As London band The Dipsticks will tell you. Instead its about history, loyalty, and wait for it.. a desire to ‘rock 'til you drop’. When bass player Mark McKendrick contacted me back at the beginning of 2009 to tell me that he and (in his words) ‘lyricist extraordinaire’ Patrick Begley - had put their old band (established 1978) back together, I was all ears, and keen to include them on the bill of the next RTYD gig, which happened to be at the Dublin Castle. Their reunion went down a storm.

Tonight, I've invited McKendrick out for a drink to find out more about the vicissitudes of the Dipsticks history. The bonus is that Begley, singer, guitar player, pen pusher and ambulance driver, is making an apparently rare social appearance. I am delighted.

The Dipsticks came into being about 1978. Having met briefly in the early '70s in Plymouth where Begley was studying art, Begley and McKendrick came across each other once again in another twist of fate in the infamous squat community on Carol Street in Camden, North London. Segregated from the junkie end of the street and differentiating themselves by their need to make things happen, they ended up playing their part in organising a street party for which they of course needed live music. Begley and McKendrick stepped up to the plate and put a band together especially for the event, which went down like a junkie's house on fire. There followed a number of invitations to entertain elsewhere, and before they knew it the Dipsticks were an established band on the local scene.

It wasn't long before either before they had acquired a Saturday night residency at The Royal Exchange pub off Chalk Farm Road (now the karaoke bar The Fake Club) and fans were queuing around the corner to get in to enjoy 90 minutes of Dipsticks' originals and cover songs.

But the late-70s the live music scene was of course dominated by punk and new wave bands and despite their live success and some record company interest, the band, with ages through late teens to mid twenties, had trouble 'fitting in'. The result was that they called it a day. After an ill-fated reformation as a three piece in the '90s, the Dipsticks called it a day until last year when they once again got together as a three piece drafting in Angie Ierodiaconos on drums.

Begley, as it turns out spent a large part of his youth growing up near Godalming in Surrey, where I too misspent my youth. He reminisces about working on the door at the Gin Mill club at the Angel pub in Godalming around '67, "I saw Free play their second gig there" he says enthusiastically, "and I saw Fleetwood Mac there a few times. I even remember stopping Danny Kirwan from getting in on one of the nights Fleetwood Mac played. It was one of the first gigs he played with them, and he claimed to be 'with the band' but I didn't believe him ‘cos he just looked too young..".

McKendrick came down to London, on and off from about '72, mostly to work 'on the road'. He was also ‘carting’ for a number of bands associated with the erstwhile Island Artistes company and he went on to manage pub music venues, not long before the dawn of The Dipsticks. "I was very transient in my youth, man", he says, "I grew up in Manchester. My family was musical, and I used to sing in the choir, but when I heard the Beatles, man, that was it, I just went with it all". For a moment I am so envious of this memory and experience; of McKendrick having been witness to this cultural epiphany. Because, as we know, not only was McKendrick changed for ever, so was popular music, culture and fashion. What a thing to have lived through.

These 'boys' are in their mid to late fifties. They are essentially bluesmen, with a healthy injection of late-60s psychedelia. Now, I ain't got the blues like these guys; as well as being over ten years their junior, I am part of the post-Bowie/Roxy/Bolan generation. "Those bands just seemed so superficial to us. They were on Top of the Pops and they made singles. The bands we loved like Pink Floyd and Zeppelin, made albums. We were in our mid-20s when punk broke, man, we felt too old to be at those gigs. And besides, they didn't want us there, anyway" explains McKendrick.

"It's about the electric guitar, you see", pipes up Begley. "When you've been there at the time to hear what bands like the Shadows, The Chantays, the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix were doing with guitars that sticks with you. That passion, musicianship and virtuosity never stops guiding you and inspiring you"

Among a host of great gigs that Begley has been to over the years, he saw Led Zeppelin at the Royal Albert Hall in '69, Jimi Hendrix play twice, once at Woburn Abbey with the Experience, and also at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970, where he also saw The Doors (lucky git!), and Emerson Lake & Palmer, the latter debuting the Moog synthesizer there. "We could believe our ears when we heard this thing" explains Begley" Our jaws just dropped open - I only wish I'd stayed awake for Captain Beefheart"

Far from merely their being ‘has-been’ fans, however, both Begley and McKendrick have their respective contemporary muses; Begley is a big fan of Sonny Landreth and James McMurtry; and McKendrick, who has been a long time soul fan, discovered the Allman Brothers Band through brother Duane’s collaborations with the likes of Wilson Pickett and Aretha. For a number of years now, he has made the annual pilgrimage to New York’s Beacon Theatre to catch the contemporary Allman Brothers in their regular March stand and this year put a forty year Jones to bed when Eric Clapton guested at the Brothers’ 40th Anniversary event.

It's a pleasure to talk to these two guys. They remind me what RTYD is all about. I also relate to their musical relationship. Their loyalty. I'm sure they have their differences, but they are not on display tonight. They are a band tonight, just as they have been as young men and will continue to be, as long as they physically can. I feel the same way about my life-long friend and bass player. Whatever happens, you always have this musical history together. You feel the same passion about music, the same pain. The same frustration and joy. You are brothers in music. What a shame not to keep that going.

It's just how? These days the live music scene is very different to the one Dipsticks played on back in the late 70s. A lot of the old pub venues have closed down, and Camden is sewn-up by promoters putting on band after band, night after night, playing thirty minute sets at most. A residency is a thing of the past. Two forty-five minutes sets, which I'm sure these guys would love to play, are almost unheard of.

But they will persevere, because they seem to have no choice. It defines them. Maybe they don't always agree with each other, but tonight they sit patiently listening to each other's versions of their own rock history. Their enthusiasm and passion is at odds with their ages. They are both still young men at heart. What a lovely evening. Once their pints are finished though, they are done, they've said their piece. They may not be able to drink like they used to, but you know they can make music just like they once did. Better.

Toby Burton
(Originally published 06.10.2009)


stevejones13 said...

Hi Toby - love the Blog! we are trying to piece together some of the history of the old Gin Mill club at the Angel Inn in Godalming. Your input (and Patrick Begley's) would be much appreciated!

Toby Burton said...

It's a bit before my time Steve, but I have sent a message to Patrick. All the best with the project. I am actually from Godalming, so really pleased that you are doing it.