In Bed With Ben E. King

How a stoned rehearsal session turned into a beer and Thunderbird laced all-nighter in a London railway arch with the soul legend...
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How a stoned rehearsal session turned into a beer and Thunderbird laced all-nighter in a London railway arch with the soul legend...

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We are stoked up and wide eyed. We have spent the last week crash rehearsing the new songs but none of us are sure we really have much idea what we are doing. What mattered was that our mad cap and fast talking manager, Tracie, has organized a showcase for us in front of David Ambrose, head of London Records, and at this precise moment we are trundling down the motorway in a battered orange transit van, full of what might be. Our destination is the pretentiously named Barrington Sound Clinic in Brixton South London.

The last year has been quite an experience. Paul and I had known each other since we were fourteen and we had grown up together from then on. We had smoked our first joints together, jammed our first songs, and popped our cherries along the way. 18 months ago we had put together our first proper band and, like something out of a film, immediately got signed up by a pretty happening independent label. We had so far released three singles and all of them had scraped into the independent music chart. God knows how?

A few months previously our status as local legends had been interrupted by the arrival of Tracie LaMorte. She was a stick thin ball of energy with a big mouth and a blue wig, and we immediately bought into her story. She had managed several acts we had heard of, and even one who were now a big noise in the States. For a bunch of wide eyed nineteen year olds, what more was there to know? We needed to think big, she told us. Do you want to be a big fish in a small pond or do you have the mettle to break out and take it further? We slavered like Pavlov’s dogs and told her we did. She then informed our record label they could go fuck themselves and that we would not release anymore material on their poxy label. This led to two years of litigation but that's another story.

Right now we are traversing the roads of South London, drinking home brewed pear wine, and about to turn into the yard of the Barrington Sound Clinic. For the next 3 days we are to rehearse our show and then perform it like we are at Wembley stadium. The audience will consist of one person. David 'Flakey Dave' Ambrose. The man who signed the Sex Pistols and Duran Duran to EMI, Sigue Sigue Sputnik to Phonogram,(for which he was sacked) and Fine Young Cannibals to his current home of London Records. Ambrose was something of legend, not to mention an enigma. Prior to becoming the worlds greatest hit and miss A&R man, he had played bass in The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Rod Stewarts' pre-Faces band, Steampacket, and also a brief stint in Peter Greens early Fleetwood Mac. Paul and I had met him the previous week at his office. During the chat Tracie had called up.

Her foghorn gob could be heard from the handset reminding Ambrose to take us for lunch. Ambrose then bundled us into the boot of his car and took us to his house in Fulham, where upon he handed us a loaf of sliced bread, a jar of peanut butter, and a spoon. Tracie had warned us he made Syd Barrett look like a lightweight.

The Barrington Sound Clinic didn't quite live up to its swanky name. We found ourselves in a railway goods yard a few blocks from Brixton tube station. It comprised of several railways arches that had been converted into shabby rehearsal rooms, and one much larger arch that housed a recording studio. Everything in it was held together with black gaffa tape.

We are greeted by Jack Barrington, the proprietor. He's mid fifties wearing a Fred Perry and the requisite 'Sarf Landan' gold chains and sovereign rings. He is pleasant enough and accompanied by two policemen. It transpires that Jack's Mrs had recently had her hand bag snatched so, as you do in Sarf Landan, Jack had borrowed a coal truck and reversed it into the front of a local cafe where the bag snatcher was known to frequent. Over the next few days we came to realize that Jack was President of the local Self Preservation Society and, as such, he was afforded this kind of naughty misdemeanor without much more than a cursory word in his 'shell like'

Jack shows us to our rehearsal arch and informs us that Tracie had asked him to book us some local accommodation. However, seeing as how we are 'Total fucking no-marks who I ain't never 'eard of, not neva,' we will have to doss down in the rehearsal room.

It is all fine. It all feels like a great adventure. Within an hour we are set up and making a noise. We decide we need some beer and I go over to the main studio arch to find Jack and get some directions to the nearest off-license. As I enter I am greeted by someone. He is a black American guy, probably in his mid fifties, and clearly a bit the worse for wear.

“Hey Bro, if you going for liquor, man, get this nigger a bottle of Tunder-blunder, yeah?”

It is the first time I have ever heard a black man call himself that and I don't quite know what to say. I just nod and assume he is talking about Thunderbird wine. Twenty minutes later I am back with the goodies and hand the guy his wine. He has kind eyes and skin like creased leather. He doesn't pay me back for the wine though, and I'm not really sure if I should ask.
At 11pm Jack comes marching in to our arch and tells us how it is. He will leave the main door open so we can get some fresh air, but lock the prison style security gate at midnight. This means we can we still have access to the toilets and coffee machine situated in the corridor just outside our rehearsal space, but we can't get out of the building. He will be back each morning around 9am. I ask Jack about the black guy who was sitting in the studio foyer.

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“You mean Ben?”,he says.

I am none the wiser.

In the course of the next two minutes we discover that the big studio arch across the yard, is currently occupied by a South African vocal group called Ladysmith Black Mambazo. They are here to add their voices to a film sound track. The little American dude with a penchant for 'Tunder-Blunder' is none other than 24 carat soul legend, Ben E King. Ben has been flown in by the record label to act as executive producer, albeit this has so far amounted to him getting pissed everyday from about lunch time onwards. However, we are impressed to be in such hallowed company.

The next day we get down to work. By 8pm we have played the songs 30 times, smoked lots of cigarettes and drunk a case of Stella. It's time to get some food and stock up on supplies before warden Jack locks us in for the evening. Around 10 o'clock we are sprawled out in the various moth eaten sofas and skinning up for the umpteenth time today, when a friendly Afro-American face appears around the door.

“You got any Tunder-blunder?

It is Ben E King. Our faces light up. He seems a very warm guy with a huge personality. It is hard not to  slip into fan mode and start questioning him about his life and music.

In no time at all Ben has drunk a decent amount of our beer. His laugh is infectious and the time just flies by. Finally he struggles to his feet, the slightly drunken mood having resulted in him offering to produce our album. Before too long Ben E King stretched tall and let forth a tired yawn 'I better make tracks' he says. We thank him for popping by and feel stunned that such a luminary of music should want to come and spend an hour with a bunch of nobodies that Jack ain't 'eard of, not neva. He gives us all an embrace, and wanders off to the door as he offers his last goodbyes. We all settle back and crack open another few cans to savour the moment, when Ben's broad Harlem tones come booming from the corridor beyond the rehearsal room.
'What the hell is this?'

We all look at each other with raised eyebrows before getting to our feet and going to look. Standing in the corridor is Ben. He has opened the large sound proofed door that leads to the yard. However, his exit is blocked by a large iron security gate straight out of Pentonville nick. Time had most definitely flown. So much so that that Jack had locked us in for the night and gone home.

Within about 30 minutes Ben E King has accepted the inevitable. He was stuck here until Jack unlocked the security gate in the morning. “You got any more Tunder-Blunder?” In an effort to lighten the mood we decide to do what we had done the previous night. Jam lots of songs and play stupid tour games.

Ben seems happy to join in, he makes several humungous joints, and makes further in-roads into the booze stash. The first game we play is a band favourite and seldom fails to raise some hilarity. We don't know it yet but tonight is going to be a classic.

Everyone is given two Rizla papers. On the first you write a style of music. Jazz, punk, soul, flamenco, whatever takes your fancy. On the second you write a subject. It can be absolutely anything at all. The more stupid, the better. The papers are then scrunched up and placed in two plastic cups. Each person takes a Rizla from each cup and has 15 minutes to compose a song in the style of, and on the subject, they have selected.

Ben E King, soul legend, has got 15 minutes to compose a rap tune about drain cleaning. We all don instruments, in between stoned giggles, and pick up a cod Run-DMC groove. Go Ben!

“I'm a Dynorod boy with ma steam clean jet!
“I ain't found a drain that I can't clean yet, C'Mon!

The finale to the evening is a magic moment. On the way to London we had been listening to Prince and, during the previous evening, we had just about nailed a half decent rendition of 'Never Take the Place of Your Man' Ben knows the song and, after writing out the lyric for him, he gives it both barrels. Prince would have wept with envy.
Four young nobodies are locked in a South London railway arch at 3 a.m with Ben E King, and performing a moment that was lost to the ether of history. Can't believe we didn't bother to tape it.

At about 8.45 a.m I am roused by the sound of locks clinking and our resident Frank Butcher look-a-like ordering someone to shift their 'effing' car out of his parking spot before they cop for a thick ear.
I look out across the room from the relative comfort of the moth eaten draylon sofa. Ben E King is dead to the world and snoring like a road drill, spread eagled under a blanket in the middle of the floor. All around him are empty cans...All apart from the one he is still holding.

Jack Barrington thumped open the door and strode in with a greeting of 'Slop Out, B Wing!' He sees Ben E King comatose in the middle of the floor surrounded by empties. 'What the bloody 'ell is he doing in here?”

Ben E King hauled himself to the upright, took a swig on his room temperature Stella, and rubbed his chops as he looked at warden Jack 'Shiiiit, Man, you locked me in here last night.”

Jack Barrington gave an exasperated shake of the head and hauled Ben E King to his feet. C'mon soppy bollocks, fuck off out of here before you make any more mess.”

It's 6pm and Flakey Dave Ambrose has been and gone. We were non the wiser as to his opinion on the band, as he had just sat staring at the floor for the whole hour he was there, muttering the phrase 'Wizards and Queens' (?) Tracie assured us that, as long as he hadn't started howling like a dog and pulling out his hair, he probably liked us. Suddenly, there was the sound of much huffing,clanking,and swearing. A size nine booted open the door, almost flattening the blue wigged gob monster behind it. In stumbled our resident soul legend, carrying a case of beer and several bottles of wine. 'OK, who's for a slug of Tunder-blunder?'

David Ambrose never did sign us and Tracie LaMorte turned out to be every bands worst nightmare. However, we didn't really care that much. They really were just the side show, when all said and done.

This is an extract from Ian's book, Career Opportunities (the ones that never knock). Follow the link below to buy a copy...