24.12.14

THE VICAR, THE PANDAS & SKIPTON



On Christmas Eve 2010 one of my oldest friends, Bob Gunby, lost his battle against cancer. Bob and I had known one another since Primary School and he was the drummer in my first band, The Pandas, who played around the Skipton area in the mid-sixties. Earlier that year Bob’s wife Yvonne had organised a band reunion at their home in South Cave near Hull, so I loaded the Strat and a practice amp into the back of the car and headed north. Also there was John, who’d been our bass player, but we didn’t know where Terry, the singer, lived so it was just the three of us, though Yvonne and John’s girlfriend Jane joined in on tambourines. In the meantime Bob had taken up the bass guitar, so the five of us were able to make a terrible racket for one last time.
         I was unable to attend Bob’s funeral and instead wrote Yvonne a long letter which I asked her to show to their children and grandchildren. In it I related the story of how Bob and I first met and the ensuing friendship, right up to the reunion at South Cave. With Yvonne’s permission I’m posting it here today as a tribute to my dear friend Bob - The Vicar.


Bob on drums, John on guitar & vocals, CC sitting on a speaker; Skipton, 1965.

This is a picture from the same venue as above, CC, Bob, John & Terry, probably taken in 1964.


CC, Bob and John; South Cave, 2010. 

I was seven years old in 1954 when I first encountered The Vicar, or Robert as I would have called him in those days. We were at Otley Street Primary School together, and my mum must have sensed in him a degree of responsibility for after discussion with Mrs Gunby it was agreed that Robert, who was a few months older than I, could accompany me home after school, a journey that took us through the old cattle market behind Skipton Town Hall, across the High Street by the Cenotaph opposite the Parish Church, past Pethybridge’s sweet shop on the corner, the New Ship pub (which would feature in our lives ten years later), Stanforth’s Pork Pie shop by Mill Bridge, and finally up Grassington Road towards Raikes Road where our house was the second on the left.
         The Gunby house – Dungoyne – was at the top of the hill and opposite it was the rec, the recreation ground, where as eight year olds Robert and I climbed trees together. He was always much better at it than me, more agile and more adventurous, and he always reached for higher branches than I did. So too in life, I guess, as becoming a solicitor is surely a higher calling than becoming a rock writer, though probably not as much fun.
         Opposite Dungoyne was a large detached residence owned by the fat, balding, reclusive Mr Fattorini, who owned a jewellery shop in Skipton and who was seldom seen, but it was somehow communicated to us that he didn’t mind if us young boys roller skated on the concrete paths that surrounded his house. We did too, and a bit later used his big garden for a game called kiss chase with some girls who lived nearby. The idea was to chase the girls into the bushes where, if we caught them, they submitted to a peck on the cheek. We were only 12 after all.
         When we reached our teens I went to school in York and Robert went to Ermysted’s GS in Skipton, but we remained close friends, meeting up in the school holidays to drink coke and frothy coffee together in the coffee bar on Mill Bridge that had a juke box. For a handful of those tiny silver sixpenny bits we could listen to Elvis, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry and Roy Orbison, and it was probably around this time that Robert became Bob and, a bit later, The Vicar, a nickname coined because he sang with the Parish Church choir. It stayed with him for life, as least as far as I was concerned. When that coffee bar became a ladies’ hairdressers we shifted our custom to another one behind Ramsbottoms’ electrical shop on Sheep Street which sold guitars and drums, and when we turned 16 or so we discovered the magic of The Beatles and the Stones and all the rest. By the summer of 1963 that wondrous madness called Beatlemania had gripped the nation. We weren’t immune. I pestered my parents to buy me a guitar and Bob somehow got hold of some drums.
         The exact details of the birth of The Pandas are lost in the mists of time. Terry Garner, who became our lead singer and rhythm guitarist, lived in Raikeswood Drive, not far from Bob, and John Holmfield, who became our bass player (though he never actually owned a bass), lived on the Regent Estate on the other side of town. Terry knew Bob because they went to school together; John knew Bob because they were both in the church choir. As we know, I’d known Bob since we were in short trousers.
         We formed around late 1963 and hung together for almost three years, performing strictly cover versions and aspiring to semi-pro status in that we accepted a pittance for the handful of dates we performed. We had a card printed – “The Rockin’ Pandas - Available for Dances, Parties & Special Occasions” – and in keeping with the name wore black shirts and white jeans. We had a picture of a panda on Bob’s bass drum.
         Our repertoire consisted of instrumentals by The Shadows and others, songs by The Beatles, Rolling Stones and Searchers, and some older R&R and R&B songs, most especially Chuck Berry, almost all of which we’d discovered on early recordings by The Beatles and Stones and their contemporaries like The Animals, Searchers, Hollies etc. Indeed, we played no fewer than 10 non-originals that appeared on the first two Beatles and first Stones albums. I remember mastering ‘Saturday Night At The Duck Pond’, a variation of the theme from Swan Lake, by The Cougars, and ‘Hall Of The Mountain King’, a favourite of instrumental bands, whose theme is borrowed from Greig’s Peer Gynt, but gradually we dropped the instrumentals in favour of songs. We always began our first set with ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and closed the final set with ‘Twist And Shout’. I suppose we had about 30 songs all told, and Bob kept a precise record of our repertoire and the shows we performed in a school exercise book with an orange cover.
         John had the best amp, a Selmer 30 watt affair, and a Vox guitar; I had a Futurama 15 watt amp, selected no doubt because it had the same black and gold livery as the celebrated Vox AC 30s used by The Beatles, and a red Futurama III guitar which looked a bit like a Strat, but somewhere along the line I swapped it for a real bass guitar, a Hofner violin like Paul McCartney; and Terry had a Hofner f-hole guitar with a pick-up he’d stuck on himself. Bob’s drum kit was white with The Pandas logo, make unknown, which he tended to hit very hard and drown us out. We ‘borrowed’ a hopelessly inadequate PA system from a local youth club and I cannot be sure if it was ever returned.
         We rehearsed in our homes, creating a terrible din, especially at Bob’s house where we had to cram into the attic. We had one or two fairly regular ‘bread and butter’ gigs locally, at Skipton Rugby Club and at the RAF Club by the old swimming baths on Shortbank Road. We played at private parties and occasional dances in church halls in the surrounding villages, sometimes supporting older, better-equipped groups, and once – memorably – at a dance at Aireville Comprehensive School in front of about 200, our biggest ever audience.
         Terry, who stood stage centre and handled most of the singing, was a handsome Lothario with a roving eye but he missed rehearsals, preferring the company of girls to us three, and didn’t maintain his equipment properly. He was always breaking strings and having no replacements and his amp was crap, an old radio that he’d somehow transformed into a piss-poor, tone-free guitar amp. He was always wanting to plug into the superior amps of John and myself, and cadging strings. Nevertheless he was crucial to the group’s line-up as for all his faults he had heaps of confidence and reckless enthusiasm, qualities that only later did I come to realise were just as important as musicianship in any successful group.
         In hindsight it seems to me now that of the four of us Terry was the only one who had it in him to become a real rock star. He stood centre stage with his legs apart, like Eddie Cochran or Bruce Springsteen or Joe Strummer, and faced down his audience, his guitar slung low, his right foot kicking the beat, looking like he meant business. In contrast John and I were wimps, our eyes on our fretboards, though Bob gave it his all on the drums and sang well. Naturally he sang those songs that Ringo sang in The Beatles, ‘Boys’ from the first LP and ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’ from the second. We couldn’t afford a boom mike so he had a mike on short stand in front of his snare – well unsatisfactory.
         Predictably, Terry was first to leave, the consequence of him having finally and inevitably impregnated one of his many girlfriends. He fled to Leeds where he worked for an insurance company, setting up home there with the mother-to-be. His departure decisively weakened the group and hastened its demise: after Terry left, Bob, John and myself held a few half-hearted rehearsals as a trio with me on bass but it wasn’t the same so the group disbanded.
         It was during the era of the Pandas that the four of us discovered beer, our first local the Midland Hotel opposite Skipton Railway Station which for Bob, Terry and myself was a pleasant stroll down through Aireville Park and across the canal bridge. We were probably underage drinkers when we first went there, and for reasons beyond recall all of us began our life as boozers by drinking Mackeson stout, like Ena Sharples from Coronation Street. I have no idea why. I think it was John and I who first discovered the New Ship on Mill Bridge one Friday night and decided it was livelier than the Midland, so Bob and Terry weren’t far behind. In the Ship we drank pints of Tetley’s mild, then graduated to bitter.
         The Ship would grow in popularity during the second half of the sixties, eventually becoming a key meeting place for a community whose members, well some of us anyway, were unlikely to lead ordinary lives; fun-loving Skipton friends with inquisitive minds who nursed ambitions beyond the town, young men whose pretty girlfriends wore their hair long and free and whose short skirts were much appreciated by the older male clientele who’d been using the pub for years. We drank there, and nowhere else in Skipton, from around 1965 onwards; a whole crowd of us, Pandas and girlfriends, Bob The Vicar, Terry with his latest conquest, John and Alison, me and Margaret, and many others too, all of us crowded around the tiny bar or in the small, smoky tap room, and Bob would remember them all too: the dapper solicitor Brian Dunn who died in a car crash, John Willie who sang in the Black Sheep and drove his dad’s milk lorries and Janet Eastwood, big Haydn Lyle the estate agent, Brian ‘Beesom’ Bellas who could down three pints in 20 seconds, the Parker brothers from Carlton, off-license manager Pete Thwaite, red bearded Bramall – always Bramall, never with a Christian name – Willie Houston with a scar on his cheek, Julian Hyde who sometimes played the old piano, car-mad Frederic Manby whose lovely girlfriend Linda Newhouse took your breath away when she smiled, Fred’s sister Sue, accountant Andy Leach and Gwynneth who ran a sewing shop, Charles Everett from Hawes and Susan Raw, my best mate Twinque who turned me on to Bob Dylan. All of these and more gathered to drink at the Ship, especially on Friday nights, before we headed to our cars and raced up the Dales to the Devonshire Arms at Cracoe or the Bull at Broughton. A pint of Tetley’s mild in the Ship was one and fourpence in those days, fags a bob for ten, and the landlord, once he’d realized what sort of crowd he had (he never understood us didn’t old Jim Carberry, but he liked our cash alright), wasn’t averse to the odd after-hours lock-in, being as how there was an unlit back room, so long as you bought his wife a rum and pep.
         By now, of course, Bob had gone to Leeds University to study law and I was working for the local paper, the Craven Herald & Pioneer. I stayed over in Leeds with Bob a few times and we went to rock shows together at the University Refectory, the Hollies, Joe Cocker, the Move. Bob borrowed someone’s scarf for me to wear and a Student Union Card, and I slept over in Boddington Hall, his hall of residence. Then I joined the Telegraph & Argus in Bradford and began to write about music, and Bob became a lawyer. Then I left Skipton for good and never really looked back.
         We went on holiday together in the summer of 1969, after I’d moved south, driving down to the south of France via Paris. We slept in my car, a silver Ford Escort, in the streets of Paris, and washed up on the Riviera where for a week we rented a log cabin on a camp site. He saved my life there, well both of our lives actually, when I set off to drive on the wrong (English) side of the road and he noticed before I did and yanked the steering wheel just before we drove headlong into an approaching car. Phew.
         And so, inevitably, we drifted apart but not before I was best man at your wedding. By this time I’d joined Melody Maker and I remember delivering my ridiculous speech about how the world’s groupies were wringing their hands and gnashing their teeth since Bob, The Vicar, the celebrated drummer, was no longer available. Obviously my new position on MM had gone to my head. I flirted with the lovely bridesmaid, your sister Diane, who flirted back, which vexed her boyfriend. Bob graduated and joined the legal profession and I went to live in New York and somehow we stopped communicating. I saw John once or twice when I went up to Skipton while my dad still lived there but after his death in 1997 I stopped going up to Yorkshire and that was that until last year.
         When you become a member of a group, be it The Beatles or The Pandas, there’s a touch of the Three Musketeers about it, that spirit of all for one and one for all, and it’s a bond you never forget. I think it’s a bit like playing together on a successful football team, or working in a particularly happy office, a memory that stays with you, warm, nostalgic and comforting. Hey, we did it guys! And that’s why we enjoyed ourselves so much when we met again last year, even if we did sound pretty ropy.
         As I pulled up outside your house in South Cave on that Saturday afternoon last February Bob came out to greet me with the biggest smile on his face and the years apart simply melted away. We had so much catching up to do, so much to say. We had such fun that night, as much fun as we ever had back in Skipton, back in the Ship, back in glory days of The Pandas. Bob looked so happy, and that’s how I’ll always remember him, my great friend, The Vicar.


CC, January 2011. 

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