Excerpts from the, as yet unpublished, rock memoir by Kevin Duncan
WE WERE ROBBED!
The adolescent adventures of a failed guitar hero
Kevin Duncan is obsessed with the rock n roll dream. Always has been. “Congratulations Mrs. Duncan, it’s a lead guitarist!” But his way of pursuing it is much smarter than the usual route of ignoring your education, donning some daft clothes, and hoping to be picked up by a record label. His plan was always to make the money first, and then use it to fund the dream. Aged nine he was refusing to join the school choir and buying a guitar instead. After scenes of near-riot at the boarders’ feast where he aired his first Telecaster miming to Slade, he left to form Fixed Dice, a totally amateur bunch of hairy teenagers playing Lynyrd Skynyrd and Status Quo – loudly and badly.
His succession of obscure bands has wrought a trail of rock n roll havoc over the years, and no few anecdotes. In 1978 Radio Ferret became notorious for encouraging a fan onstage to sing with them who promptly had an epileptic fit. At the height of punk, The Disease came very close to destroying the Merchant Taylors’ old boys club when they encored with Anarchy in Moor Park. In The Polite Assassins in 1983 he was widely ridiculed at a Battle of the Bands competition for wielding a deeply unfashionable Flying V – an axe he still proudly owns to this day. And the smoke bombs detonated at the Half Moon in Putney led to the fire brigade being called out to rescue Nice n Tight and their fans.
In 1990, Q magazine described his Murder by Handshake ensemble as “relentlessly average with an urgent desire to be like every other rock band”, and suggested that their crowd-pleasing classic Living Today was “a rigorous analysis of how to launch a women’s magazine”. The talent scout at Virgin, on hearing one of their power pop songs burst into a trombone solo, dismissed them as “too quirky”.
Unperturbed, he has ploughed relentlessly on, forming dozens of bands, writing over 500 songs and religiously going to over 300 gigs in 30 years. His bands have variously supported the Stranglers, Elvis Costello, Steve Gibbons and Mungo Jerry. He has bunked off school to see the Sex Pistols, interviewed Motorhead, and been on a blues pilgrimage down the Mississippi. You name them, he’s seen them: the classic Thin Lizzy line up in 1976, blues greats Chuck Berry, BB King and Homesick James, punk grit from The Ruts and The Damned, and heavy metal stalwarts Saxon, Iron Maiden, UFO and Van Halen.
He loves it all so much that he has even kept every ticket and set list from every gig, and his house is a temple to the rock n roll gods – bristling with gear and memorabilia. Now aged 44, he still can’t help himself. He owns 25 guitars, has a recording studio in his cellar and is still releasing CDs at a prolific rate.
Businessman by day and rock god by night, he has already commissioned the world’s first rock n roll wheelchair, complete with leopard skin upholstery, built-in silver glitter Gibson SG, and a sidecar for his roadie. The story ends with the author picturing his own demise onstage at the Twilight Home for Retired Rock Stars, where he has organised one grand finale….
1. Cissy choir boy or rampaging rock star? The summer of 69
Boarding school insubordination, Alice Cooper rocks the system, and the birth of a closet rock god
2. Gone electric: Telecasters are go!
Dodgy school reports and pandemonium at the boarder’s feast
3. Conversion on the road to Hammersmith
Thin Lizzy and Lynyrd Skynyrd inspire the launch of Legend and Fixed Dice
4. Confused of Watford: punk meets Judas Priest
That famous Pistols gig and the “truly extraordinary” Radio Ferret
5. Anarchy in Moor Park
The Disease fans attempt to destroy the old boys’ social club
6. Green strides and Flying Vs
Maelstrom take Rickmansworth civic centre by storm riding the New Wave of Suburban Heavy Metal
7. The college years
The Inrage go power pop, Straight, no chaser! grace the dinner jacket era, and interviewing Lemmy
8. Goodnight Wandsworth!
The Polite Assassins, Murder by Handshake and the record company trawl
CHAPTER 1. Cissy choir boy or rampaging rock star? The summer of 69
I knew the day was coming. Actually I’d known it for a while. And then it happened. A large hand appeared on my shoulder and the gruff voice delivered the dreaded words, “Duncan, we want you in the school choir.”
This was boarding school at the end of the sixties – a potentially very scary place for an eight-year-old streak of piss. This was Bruce Clarke, the Head of Music, a Basil Fawlty-like character with a fanatical devotion to close harmony singing and chorister cleanliness, and a ferocious temper. When this guy blew his top, the screams echoed around the Great Hall where he dragooned generations of young boys into pews and forced them to sing soprano until their balls ached. I knew what it was like in there. The kids usually came out in tears, with varying degrees of injury to their hands and arses, depending on the supposed severity of the crime. These would range from having a crumpled hassock to failing to hit a top B at forty paces during a Handel fugue. It was truly horrible stuff, and there was no way I was going to be part of it.
But there were two problems. Number one, rules were rules, and no one in the history of the school had ever before refused conscription to the choir. Number two, I had a bloody good singing voice and everybody knew it. The fact that I was usually belting out Alice Cooper or T.Rex was hardly the point. A note is a note, and if you can hit one, you can hit one. My brother was already Head Chorister for Christ’s sake. And Head Boy. So the powers that be reckoned the pattern was set. Don’t make me laugh, I thought. I had other ideas. I was about to pioneer the future of rock n roll in a traditional boarding school somewhere in deepest Hertfordshire. The rock n roll dream was mine, all mine. Basil Fawlty stirred me from my reverie.
“Report to the choir room at 7.30 am tomorrow, Duncan.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that, sir.”
This was treason. Saying no to any master was tantamount to asking for a good beating. Saying no to this tyrant was like wandering into a tiger’s cage and poking him with a large stick whilst blowing raspberries and calling him a chicken. But I had a cunning plan. Or so I thought. Actually it wasn’t that cunning at all, but it sure was ballsy. There were a couple of seconds of incredulous silence, then, sure enough, Fawlty hit the roof.
“You’ll do what you’re told young man, like it or not!”
“Er, no sir, I have already discussed this in detail with my parents and they agree with me – I won’t be joining the choir”.
“You have what?!”
“That’s right sir. I knew I’d be asked, and I don’t want to. I asked my parents to back me up, and they have. I’ve got a letter….”
He was turning purple and twitching in a catatonic rage, interspersed with occasional gasps of incredulity. How could a whippersnapper whose parents were so many miles away have had such a crucial summit meeting to flummox his desires? This level of insubordination had never happened before. And it clearly wasn’t an instinctive reaction. This boy had planned his response long ago. He had been outthought. Outwitted by an eight year old! How would he save face in the common room? This was my first example of advance planning in action. My father was a world expert on it.
“Remember son”, he would intone whilst puffing on a pipe and nonchalantly completing the Daily Telegraph crossword in a couple of minutes, “efficiency is a sophisticated form of laziness.”
“What do you mean, dad?”
“Spend a bit of time working out what is most likely to happen, plan your response in advance, and the rest is a breeze.”
The man was a genius.
Fawlty was so apoplectic that he didn’t even have the presence of mind to summon me for a ceremonial beating or consign me to a hefty run in detention. Instead he stumbled off to the staff room cursing under his breath, clearly stumped for a clever response. And I was as good as my word. On further cross-examination, I triumphantly produced the letter from my father, and they couldn’t deny it. Further chaos ensued. Could they countermand the wishes of a parent? What would their line of argument be? This had never happened before, and they were woefully under prepared. Round one to the small man, but it was never going to be the end of the matter.
After a file of correspondence that would have made the SALT* talks look modest, the forces of darkness agreed on a compromise. I was duly summoned to the study.
“Right Duncan, sit down.”
Fawlty and the Head were there, and this was the intimidating Star Chamber effect they liked to create when passing judgment on matters of high import. I had clearly struck right at the heart of all that authority stood for. These guys had a serious dilemma. I was the youngest of three boys. Both my elder brothers had been Head Boy – models of quality and overachievement in all aspects of school life – sports, music, academia and behaviour. My father was a respected officer in the Royal Air Force, who paid the fees. They had always thought I was a cocky little shit, and they had desperately wanted to nail my arse to the wall ever since I arrived, but parents of multiple children, and the forces establishment, were important people that they couldn’t afford to piss off. They were trying frantically to manoeuvre themselves out of a tight spot without losing face. I clambered up into one of the massive chairs. My skinny white legs dangled out of my grey shorts, and failed to touch the ground.
“We have decided how to resolve this unfortunate matter concerning your refusal to join the choir. Our ruling is that you need not join the choir as your parents recommend, but instead you must learn a musical instrument. That will be the end of the matter. Inform Mr. Clarke when you have decided which instrument. That will be all.”
This was going well. So far I had successfully avoided joining the shrieking cherubs in the choir, and not been beaten black and blue for my refusal to do so. I went back to my dormitory to dust down part two of my plan. These were extraordinary places. Think air hangar with forty beds in them. Drafty, massive, and impersonal. A photograph of one of these in the paper today would cause nationwide consternation. What prison was this? What regime could keep its inmates in this sort of environment? But to us it was the norm. I contemplated my position. The plan was going well. I had known all along that I would have to agree to one instrument or other, and I had worked out the answer. I had drawn up great lists of instruments and crossed them out one by one Anything orchestral was out. Strings? Too screechy. Woodwind? Er, no. Brass? Quite funky, but no one round here was going to understand jazz. Piano? A great instrument, but I would undoubtedly be strapped to a stool and forced to grind out Sonatas in G until my head exploded. No, what I needed was something much more counter-cultural, much more revolutionary, and certainly something for which they had no rules. Oh yes indeed – the guitar! I would become Hertfordshire’s youngest Rock God.
They hadn’t seen it coming. If I had asked to learn the guitar in the first place, my request would have been rejected on the grounds that no one had ever done it before and it was too inconvenient. But this way round it was they who were insisting that I learn an instrument, and having made their mighty decree from on high, there was no way they could write back to my parents and say that Duncan wanted to the learn the wrong type of instrument. The embarrassment would have been too great. So the conditions were ideal. No one had ever been taught the guitar at the school before. They would have to get an outsider in, and they would have no yardstick against which to judge my efforts. Perfect. Within a week I was duly escorted to the St. Albans Music Centre (it’s still there, on Holywell Hill, last time I went past) to select my first axe. Well, it was an axe to me. Actually it was a Spanish guitar that cost £13, but all budding rock heroes have to start somewhere.
It was the end of the decade, the end of the swinging sixties, and 1970 was about to launch my rock star career. The kid would be alright!
“Duncan, what the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“I’m going to music practice, sir.”
“And what are those, exactly?”
I had been caught armed suspiciously with an armful of albums and cassettes, a portable record player, and a tape machine, purportedly on the way to rehearse Mozart’s ‘Cantata in B flat for ponces in sports jackets’ (I forget the exact title). Music practice was hilarious. Most of the kids used to hate it – locked in an empty classroom for an hour to blast away on a trumpet or bassoon. But not me. I would hot-foot it to the furthest away room, and take a knackered Phillips cassette recorder with odds and sods that I had taped direct from the television. Direct from the TV? Now there’s an idea for the modern age! I used to sit in a classroom with a dodgy old Redifusion black and white television every Thursday night. As soon as Top of the Pops came on, all the other kids were barged out of the way, I turned the volume up to 11, and when Quo or Bowie came on, hit the record button. Not exactly hi-fidelity, but it was enough to get the rough shape of the songs. It was Alice Cooper, Slade and T. Rex, and I was soaking it up at a rate of knots. The results of these questionable recording efforts were lapped up nightly, and I was undoubtedly the only musician in the school to volunteer for extra music practice. This was my hideaway time – no other boys taking the piss, parents in another country, just me and my guitar. It was a pattern that I would follow for the rest of my life.
Learning a few basic chords is not the big problem when you learn the guitar. It’s moving from one chord to the other that causes the trouble. A learner can sound quite competent when chugging away on E for twenty minutes. There’s then a 3 second break while he gets his act together and forms the A shape that can be excruciating for the listener. Assistants in guitar shops the world over have cringed at this phenomenon for years when the kids come in with their rich dad’s trying to persuade them to part with £1,000 for their first Les Paul. The clever thing is, the dads believe that it’s the “going rate” for a starter guitar, and hand over the banknotes while the staff nod sagely and wink at the kid – it’s a conspiracy that’s been going on for decades.
Tuning is the other big challenge for a learner. These days you can buy all manner of machines to tell you whether the string is flat or sharp, but this was long before any such machines had been invented. Instead, you listened for the rough key, and tuned the thing as close as you could. I later learned I was not alone in this. I read years later that the legendary blues guitarist Robert Cray had the same problem. He learnt a whole range of classics on his cheap electric, including all the stretches in the solos, often to find that he was playing in a key below. He still hit the notes, which may well explain why he is king of the stretches to this day. To overcome the speed of chord change problem, I spent hours tuning the whole guitar to E so that I could just whack my finger across the neck for the classic lazy bar chord. Eventually, after a lot of blisters and blood, that proved unnecessary.
All the while, the classical nightmare continued. There was a price to pay for being a rock star in your own practice room. Classical lessons. Arpeggios. Allegro! Lento! Performances in front of parents in relentlessly bad clothing. Typically the programme would read: Kevin Duncan. Guitar. Solo waltz. Mmm. This was not very rock. And there were grade exams to be taken. Sight tests to be confronted. They were the worst. The set pieces I could learn off by heart, go into the exam, set up the sheet music, and pretend that I was reading along with it. The sight-reading tests blew my cover every time. I knew it and the examiners always knew it. The usual pattern for my results was 9 out of 10 for the prepared pieces and 1 or 2 out of 10 for sight-reading. Fair point. General questions were usually deemed to have been given “fair answers but needs more study.” True indeed. What would I know about Handel when I could be investigating the life and times of Noddy Holder? 73 out of 100, a pass, but no merit. Fuck it. Who cares? Rock stars don’t sit around with a music stand and a bunch of crotchets and quavers, so why the hell should I?
My class singing report that term read, “He sings well and enthusiastically despite his alleged reticence,” This sort of veiled sniping became a running theme. I was apparently “a not unwilling boy who shows that he is capable of good work. However, a more sustained effort would bring more favourable results.” The authorities were rarely happy, and I had the whole world of rock n roll to explore in my spare time, not a bunch of old wrinklies writing sonatas and fugues.
Eventually, by the summer of 71, now aged nine, I managed my first reasonable accolade for guitar: “Kevin has made an encouraging start and should produce good results.” By the autumn of that year I roared with laughter when I was given that term’s report. My guitar teacher hadn’t been present to fill it in, so Fawlty had to write in what he had said. It must have made him spit venom to have to write: “Guitar: an apt and willing boy who works well on the pieces set.” The campaign of attrition continued.
A year later and, hey presto, when Status Quo released Mean Girl, I knew how to play it! 1971 was a brilliant year for singles. Marc Bolan’s T.Rex were on fire: Get it On, Jeepster, and Hot Love. Slade were just beginning to get the hang of it with Coz I luv you and Get down and get with it. And Alice Cooper was terrorising teacher’s values with Under my Wheels and Be my Lover from the Killer album. It took us a while, but we soon learned the value and power of a good rock song. The nastiest ones could aggravate a teacher for an entire term if you got the frequency and the volume right. The radio and the TV fed us the diluted, palatable stuff so that Tony Blackburn and Jimmy Young could give us their cheesy smiles and introduce the songs without saying arse. But the dirty, offensive material was always hidden on the albums, and for those you needed to embark on extensive trips to record shops in the major towns. That was if you could afford them at £1.99. There it would be – on side B of Alice Cooper’s Killer: Dead Babies! Christ alive, now there was something to spook the authorities. These gems would be smuggled back into school in brown paper bags and put to work at all the wrong times. There was a stereogram about the size of a rhinoceros in the common room, ostensibly for listening to the news and playing the odd Christmas carol, and if you were clever you could nip in when the teachers weren’t paying attention and whack some of this subversive material on. It caused mayhem.
“What in god’s name is going on here? Who put this filth on?”
“Duncan did, sir.”
I had tried to explain to my supposed mates that sneaking was a really poor show, but the spoilt little bastards didn’t give a shit. They would talk a good game in the playground – tough as nails – and then, when push came to shove, they squealed like a good ‘un in a nanosecond.
“Right Duncan, come to my study, and bring that godforsaken thing you call a record with you!”
A couple of minutes later I was facing the Spanish Inquisition.
“Show me the offending item, Duncan”
I duly handed over one vinyl copy of Killer by Alice Cooper.
“Who is this woman, Alice what’s her name?”
“It’s a man, sir.”
“Don’t play with me boy. Who ever heard of a man called Alice?”
“I agree it is a girl’s name sir, but he is a he.”
“You’re skating on very thin ice here, Duncan.”
He picked up the LP disdainfully and scanned the cover like a buzzard eyeing its territory for unsuspecting prey.
“What’s this adder doing on the front?”
“It’s a python sir.”
“Don’t split hairs with me Duncan. Answer the question. What is this python doing on the front?”
“It’s smelling, sir.”
“Don’t be facetious boy.”
“It must be sir, it has its tongue out, and that’s how snakes smell.”
This was not going particularly well, but I’d survived it before, and I would again.
“Where was it photographed?”
“I don’t know sir.”
“It must have been near fire if the background’s red.”
“I don’t think so sir. I think it’s a photocomposition.”
“A photocomposition sir. The shadow on the snake is purple, and they’ve stuck that on the red background for dramatic effect.”
“I see…now what was the awful racket?
He turned the LP over and scrutinised the track list.
“Be my Lover? Halo of Flies? You drive me nervous? Dead Babies!!”
His jaw dropped lower the more he read, and his face was now approximately the colour of the album cover.
Needless to say, the offending item was confiscated until the end of term. It wasn’t the only time. Daft rules abounded in 1970s boarding schools. On one occasion I was beaten for having my plimsolls in the dormitory. This was clearly a heinous crime, and I was frogmarched down to see the Housemaster, the unusually named Mr. Seth-Ward, who beat the shit out of me with a sports shoe bigger than my weedy little arse. The deal was, under no circumstances could you be seen to be crying when you came out. Kids would emerge with crimson faces (and doubtless behinds, although we didn’t get to see those bits), smile lamely at the gathered gang of voyeurs, puff their chests out, and leg it down the corridor to bawl their eyes out in some private corner. The beaten boys were able to claim that they didn’t cry and the rest all got to gloat – until it was their turn. Dignity was retained on all sides. A term later, I was being caned by the headmaster, Jack Higgs.
“Right Duncan, you’ve been found guilty of the crime, and you know the punishment.”
“Er, I think so sir.”
I have no idea what I did, or indeed whether I had actually done it. It was common to be punished for something you hadn’t done. Some you won, some you lost.
“You think so? Don’t josh with me boy. What do you think this is?”
He was posing one of those pointless rhetorical questions as he wielded a wooden cane about four-foot long. He flexed it sadistically and, in a moment of inexplicable madness driven by the imminent prospect of unspeakable pain, I remember wondering whether it was made of ash or birch. How irrelevant is that?
“This will hurt me more than it’ll hurt you, you know Duncan.”
Fuck off and get on with it, I thought.
The first blow hit hard. So did the second. The third he fluffed a bit.
“That one doesn’t count,” he announced matter-of-factly, like a sports commentator.
“Shut up, Duncan. You know the rule – the more you squeal, the more you get!”
The bastard was enjoying this. I braced myself for the fourth, the big one, and big it was. I swear he took a run up. Whatever the technique, I could just about see upside down through my legs the man in the black cape coming for me. He was going to put all his efforts into this one, and he whacked me so hard I lost my footing and shot straight across the room, chinning myself on the edge of his desk.
After I left the school, the only other time I met Mr. Higgs was when I was clad in a studded leather jacket, smoking a fag, and about to watch Judas Priest at Dunstable Civic Hall in 1978. One of his end of term reports on me was a convoluted analogy about running with the hounds and something about a hare. I never really understood what he meant, although I thought it might have been a typo, and that he thought my hair was too long. One master who certainly thought so was Mr. White, a small Scottish guy with a ferocious temper, who taught PE. His rule was that your hair mustn’t cover your eyes, even wet, and to prove it one way or another, he would frogmarch you to the outdoor, unheated swimming pool, and throw you in. When you came up, you weren’t allowed to shake your head. If it covered your eyes, you were off to the barbers. On one occasion, I had to crack the ice on the pool before getting in. My enduring memory of this bloke is a fantastic tirade he launched on the whole school one evening while we were having dinner. He thundered up and down for a good fifteen minutes ranting on about how he had never been so shocked in all his life. We didn’t have a clue what he was on about until he insisted on inspecting every boy’s swimming trunks personally (that was hundreds of pairs).
We eventually worked it out. Someone had laid a turd in the pool.
As the guitar obsession developed, so did the record collection. 1972 was a top year for classic albums. My Pye foldaway record player, a sort of plastic crimson suitcase that turned on when you put the needle on the record, was taking a bit of a hammering. The first thing ever played on it was The Best of Val Doonican, which went unceremoniously in the bin when I picked up Status Quo’s Piledriver. This was vinyl dynamite. Three hairy guys on the front doing the full-tilt boogie. Massive fuzz guitars in the middle eight of Don’t waste my time. Big Fat Mama! And the dirty, sleazy Roadhouse Blues that promised of sex on some dusty American highway.
“At the back of the roadhouse I got someone to love….”
This was the proper stuff. I went searching the record bins for more. I had heard My Brother Jake and Little Bit of Love by Free on the television, and was immediately hooked. “Just listen to the tone that Kossoff gets out of that Les Paul!” I would exclaim to my bewildered mates.
The classic Wishbone Ash Argus album introduced us to the delights of twin lead guitars, and then I discovered Led Zep. What the hell had I been doing with my time? They had already released their first four albums by 1971 – how on earth had I not heard about this? The Stones’ Sticky Fingers! Hendrix with his Strat on fire?! And Sabbath’s Paranoid? This was the dirty, filthy, ballsy stuff I sometimes heard on my brother’s tape player at home in the holidays. I was making up for lost time by laboriously learning the riff to Led Zep’s Rock n Roll on my increasingly battered Spanish guitar. The singles thundered along that year too. Slade thumped out Mama weer all crazee now and Gudbuy t’ Jane, T. Rex launched Metal Guru and of course I fancied myself as one of the Children of the Revolution, and then Alice Cooper blew the doors off with School’s Out . This was every pocket revolutionary’s dream. I taped the massive school bell at the end and stuck it on my cassette player. Whenever we were bored with a lesson, I would turn the volume up to full, hit play, and a massive long bell would ring, bringing the lesson to a halt amidst grateful cheers. Off to the headmaster’s study for another beating….
If by now it sounds as though I was a right pain in the backside, you may be half right. Nevertheless, I managed to keep the authorities at bay with some decent academic grades and a few demur classical guitar concert performances from time to time, always in front of the crusties from Hemel Hempstead and St. Albans, with the odd foreign dignitary occasionally thrown in for good measure. But there was no disguising the rock demon within, and the trusty Spanish guitar that had launched my career was beginning to reach the end of its useful life. A Spanish guitar is not built for riffing, and certainly isn’t built to withstand the amateur bashing it was receiving from this obsessed eleven year old.
Without a doubt, it was time to go electric.
*SALT talks. For those not in the know, the SALT acronym stands for Strategic Arms Limitation Talks or Treaty. At the time, the Russians and the Americans were taking a long time chatting to decide whether they were going to kill each other properly or not.
CHAPTER 2. Gone electric: Telecasters are go!
The kitty for the electric guitar had been growing for some time as I gradually accumulated Christmas donations from relations I barely ever saw, and it now stood at the princely sum of £60. Now that’s enough to set off on the road to stardom in anyone’s book, so I timed my run in the school holidays and persuaded my mum to give me a lift into Watford, where there was a music shop called Hammonds. The place was paradise to a budding rock star – chock-full of gleaming electric guitars, and amps with their power lights winking in the shadows. I can still remember walking in on that day in 1972, and the thrill still remains. Any guitarist will tell you – you can’t beat the sensation of a wall full of Strats and Teles, gleaming in the murky gloom of a guitar shop. You are immediately transported onto some massive stage somewhere, new axe in hand, surrounded by dry ice, belting out a rip-roaring solo in front of thousands of adoring fans, usually improbably attractive women with little else to do apart from drool over your every action. But I digress. It’s 1972, and it’s Watford of all places. Hardly the home of rock, but the closest urban enclave with anything like the scale necessary to host a guitar shop in those days. It was also near enough to our house in Rickmansworth to persuade my mum to make the trip. We jumped into her Mini and sped off. The electric age was about to kick off.
Standing slack-jawed in front of the wall of guitars, I was off in dreamland as usual, slavering over the possible choices. A sunburst Les Paul? A gold Strat? A Flying V??! And, of course, a Marshall four-by-twelve stack to blast them all away with. In fact, I had no choice at all. I had sixty quid all up, and that would have to get me the amp, a strap to pose in front of the mirror with, some strings and a couple of picks. I tentatively began negotiations.
“Er, hi, what can I get for £60?”
“Not a lot mate.”
“I need an electric guitar.”
“You won’t get much for that.”
“It’s all I’ve got. Have you got anything?”
The guy in the ponytail shuffled on his stool disinterestedly. This transaction was not exactly going to boost his commission for the day.
“Fussy about what type?”
“Er, I don’t think I can be, can I? So long as it works and it sounds alright. Have you got anything suitable?”
He took pity on me and sidled off round the back. I noticed with some dismay that he walked straight past all the good stuff hanging on the wall, and he was certainly not heading for the window where the prime pieces were. No, he was going for the crap they lobbed unceremoniously round the back because no one else would dream of buying it. Much to my astonishment, he returned with an absolute beauty. It was love at first sight. A Telecaster! Cream body, maple neck, white scratch plate. Immaculate. I thought he was taking the piss.
“It looks great. How much?”
I braced myself for the worst.
This was too good to be true. I looked at the logo on the headstock. I knew it wasn’t a Fender of course. It said Sumbro. Never heard of it. Who cares? It looked great. Minutes later I was plugged in to the practice amp murdering Behind Blue Eyes and Won’t get fooled again at a volume that no one else in the shop seemed to appreciate. I had recently bought The Who’s Who’s next, and was completely hooked. My mum stood by patiently and let me do the honours. She always had this great knack of respecting what I was up to. “I’m not sure I know what he’s doing, but he certainly seems to, so let him get on with it,” she would say to anyone daft enough to express an opinion. The Tele copy played well to my untrained ear, and I decided to have it straightaway, but what on earth could I play it through? I scanned the amps. Marshall stacks. Yes please, but somewhat over budget for an 11 year-old on his first outing. I eventually settled on a WEM Clubman for £26. It looked like a fat black briefcase, with a carry handle on the top. It had two knobs (one said tone, the other volume) and two jack inputs (one said INST., the other said ALT.). That was it. I guessed that meant you plugged your instrument into INST., but I never really worked out the ALT. input. It made exactly the same noise as the other one when you used it, so I was none the wiser. No matter. I eagerly handed over my £58 and we drove home, me cock-a-hoop about the prospect of sounding like Jimi Hendrix, preferably by teatime.
My new electric rig opened up a world of new possibilities. Instead of hacking away on a Spanish guitar and pretending it sounded like the real thing, now I could actually try to work out how the real noises were made. My trusty WEM was put through its paces daily. The clean tone sounded less sexy at first but then you realise how exposed your playing is with no distortion. I must have played Wishbone Ash’s Argus fifty times in a row to get the hang of that. Track 1, side 1, is Time Was, which is nine minutes and forty seconds long – plenty of time to rehearse a riff again and again, and work through any problems. But what about the big distorted noises? Sabbath’s Paranoid? How the hell did they do that? I turned the volume up full. Whoa! It was only twenty watts, but in my six-foot square bedroom it blew the roof off. This was more like it. I would lock myself away for hours. My mother would secure the ornaments, and the suburbs reverberated to the sound of a pre-pubescent boy discovering his life’s passion.
Every hour of the Christmas and spring holidays I practiced my electric skills without harassment at home. Things weren’t going so well at school. I took my guitar and amp into school for the summer term. I managed to smuggle them into a back room on the first day without being spotted, but it was never going to last. They were too big to hide properly, and school life was riddled with random inspections of cupboards, drawers and lockers. It’s not as though recreational drugs had yet reached deepest rural Hertfordshire. They were more concerned with adherence to the petty school rules. Ruler in your games locker? Detention. French notebook scribbled on? Detention. Swimming trunks in your desk? Detention. You get the idea. Rulemaking gone mad. Electric guitar in your classroom? Oh fuck.
“Duncan, what in god’s name is this?” An overwhelming sense of déjà vu swept over me. Here we go again. More idiotic rhetorical questions when they know perfectly well what it was. Don’t grin, but do bear it, I kept thinking. Come on mate, you can do it. I adopted my “I’m taking this very seriously sir” tone.
“It’s an electric guitar, sir.”
“Electric?” On reflection it was possible that he really didn’t know what it was.
“Yes sir, an electric guitar. I play the guitar, sir, you’ve seen me in the school concerts.”
“Yes Duncan, but that was the classical guitar, and very pleasing to the ear it was.”
“Thank you sir.” They always emphasised the classical bit, just to reassure themselves that it wasn’t a subversive weapon of mass destruction.
“But this. What is this monstrosity?”
“It’s an electric guitar sir.” You got used to the repetition when being questioned for a crime, or even an alleged one. They never seemed to be able to assimilate the facts based on one simple answer.
“You’ll have us all electrocuted, Duncan!”
He strode triumphantly up the corridor, seemingly pleased with his limp attempt at a joke. In the event, I was allowed to keep the guitar at school, so long as it was never accompanied by the amp which was clearly regarded as far too subversive for the system. I practiced unamplified anyway.
Regular exchanges with the authorities led me to the belief that they were all dim, and it started to show in my reports. That summer Jack Higgs, the headmaster, wrote “I look forward to teaching him next term and shall get to know him better. I must say however that at present my dominant impression of him is that he is unhappily complacent. If he could be self-assured without being self-satisfied, his talents and accomplishments would receive my unqualified approbation, and I should be delighted.”
There was always a rider on the reports that read:
Note to parents
This report is confidential to you. If you wish your son to know what it says, please consider whether different wording might convey the meaning more appropriately to his understanding.
My dad used to show me the whole lot, warts and all. “If you’re old enough to read, you’re old enough to take it son,” he would aver, handing the complete dossier to me after every term. The battle with the authorities continued unabated. My work and achievements were good, and my attitude wasn’t. It drove them mad. They wanted to say that I was pain in the arse, and look at his lousy results! But the results were good, and they could never forge a link between the two. I got maximum punishment all term, then decent academic reports. They just couldn’t get me on the work, because I was always first or second in the class. But at the end of each term, they could never resist a dig in writing.
Basil Fawlty was still smarting from my refusal to join his beloved choir two years before: “I was fairly impressed with his guitar playing at the concert in Berkhamsted. His immature attitude re. the choir and the general musical life of the school will, I feel sure, be regretted later.”
He just couldn’t let it go. But then something very weird happened. He decided to learn the guitar. This was extraordinary. My arch enemy was following my lead. One-nil to the little man! I was absolutely gobsmacked. This was a climb-down of massive proportions. Thinly veiled as the right of the Head of Music to understand the workings of as many musical instruments as possible, my main detractor was taking up my instrument. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I had won, no doubt, in one sense, but now he was able to position himself as a comrade-in-arms of sorts. Oh shit. Now that would really blow the rock n roll credibility. The whole point was to be counter-cultural, and now the bloody Head of Music was in on the act. This would need some serious thought, and a completely new plan of attack.
It took weeks of severe contemplation, but eventually I alighted on a strategy that I thought might work. I would be as helpful as possible to Mr. Clarke, so long as he was as helpful as possible to me. We embarked on an uneasy truce (I dubbed it privately the Truce with Bruce. Publicly that would have been out the question – masters were always referred to by their surnames, with a politely deferential “mister” in front). I would teach him the finer points of the guitar, try to be a decent bloke, and play in all his supposedly vital classical concerts. And in return I would get to practice my rock music, complete with electric guitar and amp, unharassed by the authorities, so long as he didn’t have to hear it or get any embarrassing complaints that put him in an awkward position. It sort of worked for a while, and my reports started improving a bit.
Jack Higgs, autumn 1972: “He has the strength and the weakness of independence, but I do not wish to press criticism when there is so much to commend.”
Bruce Clarke, summer 72: “His class music is perfectly satisfactory.”
(I never knew whether this was sarcastic or not. It sounded like damning with faint praise to me, but understanding these subtleties when you are young isn’t the easiest thing, and I didn’t really give a toss anyway because my parents knew that the choir issue was always lurking just below the surface, and they ignored it.)
By the spring of 1973, he was positively effusive: “He has worked well and his attitude has been more pleasant.” This was high praise indeed.
The guitar reports were improving too: “Good steady progress. Is now gaining a greater fluency.”
Little did my teacher know that the new-found fluency was courtesy of Jimmy Page and Francis Rossi, not his own tuition. A peace of sorts had broken out, but it didn’t last that long. It was the summer of 73, and Led Zep had just released Houses of the Holy. The cover alone, covered as it was with naked nubile children, was enough to get you thirty days in the hole – well, detention anyway. The Stones released Goat’s Head Soup. I remember driving with my mum and dad to Blackheath to visit some cousins when Angie came on the radio.
“This is pretty mild for the Rolling Stones,” suggested my dad, impressively knowledgeable for a classical enthusiast.
“It sounds as though they are repenting for taking all those drugs, “ I offered, in a worldly-wise sort of way, trying to affect the insouciance of a mature rock critic.
“Maybe you’re right son.”
He always called me his Mystery Man, and he never talked down to me. He said he liked to promote a broad church, which he certainly did, even though he delighted in describing himself as a self-confessed pagan. He never criticised an interest, just wanted to know more about it. He was an excellent pianist, trained in a completely different way to me as a musician. He could sight-read beautifully, and played with a really light touch. He basically taught me light and shade in music. He was Mozart, I was Slade, but he never said I was on the wrong side of the fence. The classical training, however, had one strange bi-product: if you took the sheet music away from him, he couldn’t play a note. It was the weirdest thing. Just by removing a bit of paper you could reduce a musical genius into a novice who couldn’t knock up chopsticks. We discussed it at length. I thought he was a genius for being able to stare at a bunch of seemingly random printed tadpoles and make them into beautiful flowing music. He marvelled at my ability to mimic any record, or make something up on the spot. It was deep respect, and watching his predicament I vowed never to become dependent on written music. The last time I looked at a piece of sheet music and vaguely understood it would have been in 1974. Since then I have written over five hundred songs, and I can still tell you how they all go just from the words and chords in my trusty song books, with not a quaver or semibreve in sight.
The summer term drifted on. A little-known band from Colorado produced what is still one of the best rock albums of all time. Montrose. Space Station No. Five has one of the biggest heavy riffs in E you’ll ever hear, and the levels of distortion these guys were getting out of their guitars defied all known laws of physics at the time. This, along with Marc Bolan’s grinding intro to 20th Century Boy and Davy Johnstone’s distorted guitar on Saturday night’s alright for fighting, dominated the turntable on the common room stereogram. I was always being asked to turn it down. Sometimes by the teachers, sometimes by my classmates. We all had monogrammed tuck boxes for our personal possessions. These were constantly being broken into so people could steal your sweets and chocolate. No matter how many padlocks you conjured up, they just jemmied them open and left the hinge hanging. Eventually, you didn’t bother to lock up because there was nothing to lock. My vinyl LPs wouldn’t fit into my box, so I had a proper record case with a lock, and I made it quite clear what the boundaries were with this.
“Look guys, have as much tuck as you like, alright, but don’t touch my records, okay?”
“Ooh, get you. Duncan’s touchy about his precious records, isn’t he boys?!”
“Yes he is, and if he catches you at them, he’ll smash your fucking brains out.”
There was a pregnant pause. I had worked out how to defend myself very early on in my boarding career. Arriving as a skinny seven year-old, I looked like fair game for the beefy boys, who immediately tried to beat the crap out of me. I was sallow, callow, and willowy. I looked like I would blow over in a light breeze, and when I was forced to go swimming, I cut a sorrowful figure that made Biafran documentaries look like easy viewing. The first beating I took as it came, but on reflection I thought, this is bollocks, I’m not having five years of this. So I worked out my response for the next time. Sure enough, a few days later there they were, boxing me into a corner in the playground, preparing me for a good walloping. This time I knew what to do. The first one came in for the kill. Like McFly in Back to the Future, I smacked him straight in the face. He reeled back in shock, blood pouring out of his mouth, with an incredulous expression on his face. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Duncan was a streak of piss, and besides, boys were only supposed to punch in the stomach. That was the rule.
“And you can tell the rest of them,” I snarled defiantly, “Duncan punches in the face.” My reputation had the desired effect. My album collection remained mercifully in tact. In this environment, as long as you didn’t cry wolf, you only had to make your point once. Establish your reputation. Always follow through on what you threaten. If you say you’re going to smack their face in, then do it properly. Then you won’t have to do it again, and they won’t bother you any more. And I was a frail kid! Welcome to boarding school in the seventies.
My increasingly erratic behaviour was earning mixed plaudits. In June I picked up a merit in my guitar Grade 2 in the glamorous environs of some dodgy school hall in Luton. In July, my guitar solo Adagio by Mertz went down a storm at the summer concert. By now the whole school was getting the guitar bug. Fawlty’s enthusiasm to embrace the cause had spawned a whole new generation of budding guitar players, so much so that I was even able to perform in a trio at the same event. Our guitar trio minuet by Lully, generated enthusiastic applause. But they still couldn’t resist a dig about my subversive behaviour even though a part of the musical rift had been patched over. That summer my House Tutor, Mr. Allaby, summed up his take on 1973 so far. “This has been a successful year for him in most respects. The only problem seems to be a slight tendency towards self-satisfaction which, if not checked, might prevent him from reaching his full potential.”
Didn’t they understand? To be a rock star, you had to have attitude.
By the autumn, they were pushing much harder. Mr. Allaby couldn’t resist another pop. “Another good all-round performance. Without wishing to be unduly critical I must add that there have been occasions when his behaviour has not come up to the standard we may reasonably expect.”
The Headmaster, Jack Higgs, had a lot of fun joining in. “His work is excellent. His football very useful this term. Art and music no real complaint. As a boy in authority: I have no doubt he is responsible enough to wish to hunt with the hounds. From lack of confidence perhaps rather than too much of it, he is not quite able to resist also running with the hare.”
It was another one of those bloody hound and hare analogies. I swear they wrote this stuff to prove to the parents that they had a good grasp of the English Language. They never expected me to be shown these comments. Or did they? I asked my dad what the hell it meant.
“It means you’re very good at everything and an irritating little bugger.”
“What’s wrong with that?
“Nothing. Because you excel at most things they can’t get you.”
“Do you think I’m irritating, dad?”
“So why do they?
“Because they see you as a threat to their authority.”
“A threat?” This was encouraging. “What type of threat?”
“You break the rules, and they don’t like it because if the other boys are brave enough, they’ll do it too. Then there’ll be chaos.”
“But it doesn’t bother you dad?”
“Can I ask why?”
“They call it insubordination. I call it character.”
This was parenting of the highest calibre. My parents weren’t remotely impressed by authority. Dad was a Wing Commander in the RAF by his thirties, and screaming through the ranks to the extent that he was earmarked as a future Air Vice Marshall. He was awarded the MBE, and then the OBE. Here, clearly, was a man of the highest calibre. But despite his extraordinary talents, he never did get beyond the rank of Wing Commander. One day I asked him why.
“I thought they were all a bunch of wankers,” he replied with characteristic frankness. “And I made the slight mistake of mentioning it about once a week.”
By the summer of 73 I had broken most of the strings on my prized Tele, and it was time to go back to Hammonds for a refit. Mum gave me a lift again, and although I was learning some of the ways of the rock musician, I still didn’t really have a clue what I was doing. I had snaffled a variety of Spanish guitar strings as replacements. They were all the wrong widths and I didn’t have any pliers so there were bits of surplus length curling all round the headstock. Not very rock n roll. I strolled up to the guy at the counter.
“Er, I think I need a new set of strings.”
After he’d finished pissing himself laughing, he called a mate over.
“Get a load of this. Chuck Berry here needs new strings.”
“Reeeeaaally?”, said his mate in that sarcastic way that often fools a novice into thinking that they really care. “I believe you do. What type would you like?”
“Uhm. I don’t know. Electric ones?”
There were further hoots of merriment from behind the counter.
“Right. We’ve got bass, acoustic, electric standard, slinky, super slinky, short gauge, long gauge, short scale, long scale and country and western. What do you fancy?”
“A set of slinky please.” I was getting fed up with this. I had read somewhere that Ernie Ball Slinkies were the thing, nice and stretchy, so I’d have those for my blistering solos. “Could you help me put them on?” This was not proper rock etiquette at all, but there was no way I could do this on my own. I’d fuck it up and get the tuning all wrong. He relented, and took the guitar to unbundle the bastard collection that was currently on there. His hand reached for the top E tuning key when he suddenly looked up at me incredulously.
“What the fuck are these, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“He puts them on for show,” offered my mum, not entirely helpfully. There, on the top three tuning keys, I had tied chunks of anorak chord, dangling like navy blues tassels. This was either going to turn into the ultimate humiliation, or I’d have to dig in a bit.
“Dave Hill in Slade does it, “ I replied defiantly.
“Yeah but he doesn’t cut them off his anorak, does he?”
It was a very fair point, and one that I took to heart for careful consideration. Dave Hill had gold, wet look platforms. So did I. But I had cut corners with the tassels. His were silver and glittery. Mine were bits of blue string. The man was right. If you’re going to play rock n roll, then you shouldn’t play at it. You had to go the whole hog. The Full Monty. Live the life. Buy the gear. Don’t fuck about at the margin. Get the guitars. Get the accessories. Get the girls! Write the songs! Live the dream!
I could have walked away from the whole experience deeply humiliated, but strangely I didn’t. It deepened my resolve to do the whole thing properly. I wrote my first song, called Come away with me, but it was bollocks, so I threw it away and pledged to myself to do better. I would have to learn to play better before I could compose something properly. I stepped up my practicing, rock and classical, and in December I was shipped out to a hall in nearby Berkhamsted, where I achieved distinction in my Grade 3 exam. Despite the top grade, playing at sight, par for the course, was judged to be “fairly accurate, but slow.” It was to be the last piece of sheet music I ever read.
Relations with Bruce Clarke were proceeding reasonably. He was thoroughly into learning my instrument of choice, and starting suggesting that he was now as good as me. Short of having a play off, with crowd participation, this was hard to prove one way or other. To keep him on his toes, I started learning more and more complicated classical pieces. Every time I got the hang of one, I would hand the piece over to him and challenge him to master it. He hated it. For him it must have been a bit like climbing a volcano when the person in front of you is faster. As soon as you arrive at the next resting point, they have beaten you to it and are ready to move on, refreshed. You get a fraction of the time out, and it’s hard to keep up. That’s how it was with him and the guitar. He had embarked on it to prove he could do what I could, and now I was pushing him further. I swear it drove him nuts. One night it was after lights out and I was just drifting off to sleep, when he burst into the dormitory. If a master stormed in at night, it usually meant that the boys had been having pillow fights or some other type of violent disruption that needed remedial action. But this was nothing of the sort. All was quiet. He had been practicing a particularly vicious adagio, and couldn’t get it right. He’d become so frustrated, and he had to know, right now. I was the only person in the building who could show him, and he knew it. So, against all the rules, I was ushered in my pyjamas and dressing gown into his room, where I had to show him the finger positions and shapes on the thirteenth fret, and play it over and over again until he could get the hang of it. It was a truly great moment. The school that originally had no guitar, had just asked the miscreant for advice on how to play it! I slept well that night, with a very big smile on my face – a rare thing at boarding school in those days.
The Truce with Bruce was always an uneasy one, and I had one more card to play as a parting shot. A new boy had arrived at the school and I thought he was great. He was called Charlie O’Kane, and that sounded very rock n roll to me. I think he was half-American, which was even better – his mum certainly sounded American to me. Anyway, we became good mates – a friendship that would last longer when by chance we were both sent to the same next school. But for the moment we were just doing all the usual stuff and railing against the system. Charlie fancied himself as a singer, which was fine by me, because I would be the axe man. We hatched a plan for the boarder’s feast – the end-of-term show where everyone could do a turn. This would be the grand finale to blow the doors off comprehensively before we were unceremoniously escorted from the premises once and for all. We would perform Slade’s Gudbuy t’ Jane at full throttle! This would need some careful planning and no few negotiation skills. My performances at these events had become mildly legendary when, as a diminutive 8 year-old, I brought the house down with an Irish-accented version of Denny O’Rafferty’s Motor Car. We had also managed to get the powers-that-be to accept that guitar playing was an acceptable group activity, so we would position the whole exercise as a “four-guitar ensemble”. That would help a bit, but we couldn’t do it on our own, so we decided to enlist the help of two masters. Mr. Allaby would record it for us to mime to, and Mr. Seth-Ward would authorise the performance. Given some of the comments that these guys had made about me in my reports, and the various beatings that I had received, any degree of collusion was likely to be something of a miracle, but to their credit, they agreed to help.
It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry recalling this extraordinary event. To me it was an epiphany. The rock press would undoubtedly have called it “seminal”, I thought. It was supposed to be rock n roll subversion, but it would have to be billed as bland enough to get past the censors. The day came. Mr. Allaby still hadn’t recorded the track, which was driving us nuts and preventing us from rehearsing properly. I wanted to plug my amp in. They wouldn’t let me. Mine was the only electric guitar in the place, which happily I was allowed to wield even if it was unplugged. Charlie and I enlisted the services of two other mates, Murray Ashton, and Gerard “G” Freeman (he insisted on being called G, just the letter, which I thought was very rock). Then Mr. Seth-Ward intervened on the art direction, and it all went wrong. Bereft of any knowledge concerning the instrumental make-up of any self-respecting rock band, he insisted that we all play guitar. No drums, no bass, just guitars. It would be like an acoustic Lynyrd Skynyrd without the rhythm section! So there was me on electric, and the other three brandishing Spanish guitars. I was also the only one with a strap, so they couldn’t even mime proper chord shapes because they were too busy holding the damn things. This was not shaping up quite how I had in mind. I managed to purloin a microphone stand that they used for announcing events on speech days to add a bit of rock cred to my vocals, and was just on the point of thinking it would be passable, when Mr. Seth-Ward issued his coup de grace.
“Right boys, now for the dance routine.”
Oh fucking hell. He had watched us rehearse, and he wasn’t impressed. I had stamped my foot a bit like Noddy Holder, but not left the mike, and Murray, G and Charlie had just stood there like the sultry teenagers they aspired to be. Seth-Ward pursued the choreography theme.
“Right, Murray, you and O’Kane strut back and forth down each side of the stage, like this.”
Murray was a Monitor, one of the top prefects, so he was indulged by being called by his Christian name. The rest of us were surnamed proles. He grabbed a guitar and did a passable but embarrassing turkey trot up the left-hand side. He was a very tall man and he made the guitar look like a ukelele.
“Then Gerard, you get in rhythm with Duncan, and sway back and forth like this.”
He looked like a cross between Hank Marvin and the Bay City Rollers, and had a grin like Rod Hull. It was truly horrible stuff, but we had no choice. Or so they thought. After this cringeworthy run-through, I called a team huddle with the boys.
“This is shit.”
“Too right, but what can we do?” Charlie was as anguished as I was.
“I’ve got an idea. It’s not that clever, but it might just do the trick if you’re all game.” I’d had enough. The truce with the teachers made some things easier, but there were limits. In the words of Alice Cooper, this was a case of No more Mr. Nice Guy. That evening, the festivities commenced, and after all the usual end of term guff about fabulous achievements, the festivities got underway. There were poor comedians, a couple of clowns, and some lame sketches mildly lampooning various masters and school rules – nothing too offensive. Then on came “Alternative Slade”, with their latest hit Gudbuy t’Jane. Unbeknown to the assembled masters, we had crawled under the stage and doubled the volume of the backing track. I had smuggled my amp to the back of the stage and plugged the Tele in, along with the microphone. The first two A and D chords blared out, the bass came in, and then I snarled out the first verse venomously.
“Gudbuy t’Jane, Gudbuy t’Jane
She’s a dark horse see if she can
Gudbuy t’Jane, Gudbuy t’Jane
Painted up like a fancy young man
She’s a queen
Can’t you see what I mean?
She’s a queen
See, see, she’s a queen
And I know she’s alright, alright, alright, alright, alright!”
The place went spastic. A hundred pre-pubescent kids who had been adhering to teacher’s rules all year burst out of the corral and hurled their Hula Hoops in the air. This was it, this was revolution. The teachers huffed and puffed, but they couldn’t stop it. Where was the switch? Where was the tape machine? Where was that amplified vocal coming from? They didn’t know. All the gear was carefully secreted under the stage and behind curtains. The boys were up on their feet by now. Fuck detention! Fuck the teachers! Fuck ‘em all! There were just too many of them for the teachers to put them down. This was proper people power. By the chorus, it was chaos. I was the man.
“I say you’re so young, you’re so young!
I say you’re so young, you’re so young!
She’s alright, alright, alright, alright, alright!’
We had three minutes and thirty-one seconds of unadulterated rock n roll fame. Bruce Clarke collared me when I came off stage muttering something about “useless crap”. It was the summer of 74, and it was time to leave Beechwood Park. According to my report, I was 12.6 years old.