Derby has a lot to be proud of, no matter what the gloomier types say. Firstly, it is a haven for proper beer drinkers with some great pubs; then there’s its heritage, which, for a small city, is being better preserved than most; and there’s music – more especially the memories of Clouds on London Lane.
Progress brings big changes, and all vestiges of a nightclub that was a key element in the lives of those of us in our late 50s, 60s and early 70s – have vanished. Clouds was not just where romantic relationships sparked, where life-changing decisions were made, and a where mistakes were made after drunken nights; it was the centre of a lifestyle.
In those early 1970s I frittered my life away drinking gassy beer, talking too loudly and gazing longingly at beautiful girls in tight trousers, micro shorts and skimpy skirts and dresses. I’ve no idea what the blokes wore: probably the same as me – scruffy shirt and flared trousers. What made the town stand out was its music.
When I ventured into the town for my first proper job I was dragged – not kicking and screaming, more smiling in anticipation – first to The Exeter Arms and thence to The Dolphin. Beer, especially good, real beer like Bass, Worthington or Marston’s was the elixir of life, the cure-all, and the best way of getting much-needed calories into a young body. This was at a time when a news editor had been heard to pronounce: “I don’t care how long my reporters spend in the pub as long as they come out with a good story.”
Next to the office was The Exchange – a quick fling round the lamp post and in through the narrow and stiff double doors for a half decent pint – and then up the road was The Trident with Dennis and Hazel and that particularly awful Breezer lager. My personal ‘home from home’ was the Old Silk Mill, with John Pierrepoint behind the bar and solid with students in front of it. It was music that built the Silk Mill’s custom, and John who played a leading role in promoting it.
Music was even more important as a lifestyle choice than a beer, and arriving in Derby I found that I was sharing office space with people who not just enjoyed music, but for whom it was tantamount to being an obsession. Two or three years ago I’d been mesmerised by Blood Sweat and Tears, then Cream and also Family – and to my absolute delight and amazement there was this middle-aged man, well, he was nearly 40, who not only concurred, but suggested I might like to review a band at the local music club. It was my introduction to Alan Smith, semi-professional jazz drummer, sub-editor and my mentor-to-be.
I was filling massive shoes. That summer I’d read a brilliant interview in Melody Maker with Jimi Hendrix – another idol – that had been penned by Roy Hollingworth. And I was expected to fill the boots that Roy had worn at the Derby Evening Telegraph! Thankfully, Alan was on-hand to guide me, and I was ably supported by Chris Ward. The same month I started work I was introduced to Clouds by Tim Price, who organised events at students at the Technical College on Kedleston Road.
The die had been cast. I was part of the Saturday Page Crew: a page every Saturday given over to music in all its forms. Roy, Alan and Chris had it ticking over, then Roy left for fame in London (and then New York) and I joined. Along the way, over the years, we were augmented by other reviewers like Kevin Palmer, Ray Yeomans and Tony Attwater, but the core was Alan, Chris and me.
There were several venues, but in those early 70s, Clouds was the thread that tied us all together. The club became Cleopatra’s; the manager changed (I wonder where Paul Conway is now?); and the bands brought some phenomenal sounds to the town. Most gave their all, few died on their feet, and for some local groups, Clouds was the pot around which the honey dripped.
There was Charge, then Hardware, who starred at a Cambridge May Ball; Freight; Nu-Frame, with whom I later travelled to the original Cavern in Liverpool just weeks before the bulldozers moved in; Waite; and Expression; and that was just to the end of 1972. But let’s go back to December 4, 1970, when a little-known foursome took the stage at the Technical College – and propelled me into a friendship that would only be interrupted by the band’s rocket-like rise to stardom. It was Slade.
The King’s Hall, the college, The Hippodrome, that disco under the Pennine Hotel, the Flowerpot for mainly folk, and various working men’s clubs (very raunchy stripteases on a Sunday lunchtime, I remember), were good venues, but almost every Thursday and then again most Saturdays it was back to Clouds.
Looking back at my press cuttings, some of the world’s greatest bands graced the stages of Derbyshire venues, but let’s concentrate on Clouds, the epicentre of our musical world. There was Ginger Baker’s Airforce (’filling but stodgy’!), Salamander and Skin Alley; Leon Russell (‘this is the best gig we’ve done on the tour so far’); Genesis; Uriah Heap (‘A hot hairy couple writhed on the seat next to me’!); Status Quo (’going to go a long way’!); Thin Lizzy (’head turning quality’); Barclay James Harvest (‘not as god as their last visit’); Arthur Brown’s Kingdom Come (‘hellish costumes to entrance a bewildered audience’). The naivety of my reporting knows no bounds!
Let’s just say that the Babington Lane club hosted some of the greatest names in rock – and quite a few that have been lost to time and vinyl. How about: Teargas, Gin House, High Tide, Steamhammer, Groundhogs, Black Widow, Genesis, Uriah Heap, Blonde on Blonde, Van der Graaf Generator (with Pete Hammill, son of top Derby businessman Maurice, on vocals), Sam Apple Pie, Mick Abraham Band, Stray, Amazing Blondel, Brick House, Wild Turkey, Head, Hands and Feet, National Head Band, Pete Yorke Percussion Band, Killing Floor, Pretty Things, Radha Krishna Temple, Man, UFO, Chicken Shack, Supertramp, Good Habit – and then it closed with, or actually without, Pete Brown and Piblokto, Stackwaddies, Bubastis, Egypt, and Origin at the end of August 1971.
All was not lost. Clouds had gone; welcome to Cleopatra’s. The first gig was Jimmy Ruffin, then came: Paladin, Sunshine, Fruup, Jude, Medicine Head, Supertramp, Stone the Crows, and the year end with Trapeze.
To many people that list of names will wash over or under them; to me – supported thankfully by press cuttings – they bring back a host of wonderful memories. My diaries are full of names for which I no longer have faces.
So what made Clouds so special? Forget objectivity: there’s no definitive answer. Nottingham, the ‘big city’ had a thriving, pulsating jazz scene and many more rock venues than Derby, Leicester had offered up some of the greatest musicians, such as Family, and both cities, plus Loughborough, had exceptional universities with heaving music scenes. But Derby had Clouds. The club was friendly, the regulars knew each other and happily spent their money, and central to its success was an enlightened booking manager – initially Paul Conway in 1970 and ’71 – who managed to persuade musicians on the cusp of stardom to ply their wares to an appreciative and knowledgeable audience.
Looking back at the reviews has re-awakened some of the adventures we got up to. Some we remember, most will be lost at the bottom of a beer glass, and a few have resulted in literary inspiration. Having left the world of newspapers I am now writing novels, all set in Derby in the early 1970s, and each drawing from the people and places I remember – so it’s sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll, and only the guilty will see themselves in these works of fiction. (First Dead Body is available on Amazon, paperback or Kindle, or direct from me.)
Clouds is no longer; The Hippodrome is pretty derelict; and the Crown Club at Spondon is not even a pile of bricks. Never has The Beatles song ‘In My Life’ been so appropriate …
There are places I’ll remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life, I’ve loved them all