A night at Fillmore East, 1970
You could fill Shea Stadium, never mind the Fillmore East, with all the people who claim they travelled from London to New York City by Boeing 707 and Cadillac motorcade to see Brinsley Schwarz on April 5, 1970. Fifty years later, it remains one of the most hilariously disreputable hypes in the history of popular music.
A bunch of chancers calling themselves Famepushers Ltd took an unknown group from Tunbridge Wells called Brinsley Schwarz (formerly known as Kippington Lodge), talked Bill Graham into giving them a support slot at the Fillmore East, and booked an Aer Lingus jet to carry 100-plus assorted media types — a mix of Fleet Street, music paper and underground press — and scenemakers (such as Jenny Fabian and Johnny Byrne, co-authors of the recently published roman-à-clef Groupie), to go and hear them.
Famously, everything went wrong. Scheduled to leave Heathrow at 10.30am and arrive at JFK at four in the afternoon, which would have given plenty of time to get to the gig, the 707 was three and a half hours late leaving London and made an emergency landing at Shannon, with no fluid in the Boeing’s braking system. I’ve never forgotten looking out of the window and seeing Irish fire engines and other emergency vehicles racing along the grass beside the runway as our pilot used every yard of tarmac and every pound of reverse thrust to bring us to a halt. Rectifying the problem took some time, and the flight didn’t touch down at its intended destination until 7pm. The band were due on stage at 8.
Somehow we were hustled through immigration without needing to show anything. We were taken by bus to the car park of the First National City Bank building on the periphery of the airport, where 25 black Cadillacs supplied by a company called Head Limousines were waiting in the dusk, along with their uniformed drivers and a police motorcycle escort, for a hectic dash that gave me my first glimpse of the Manhattan skyline on the way into the neon twilight of the city.
It was dark when the limos dropped us at the theatre’s entrance on 2nd Avenue, a block east of the Bowery. We rushed in and found some seats just as the Brinsleys took the stage. None of us — not Pete Frame from ZigZag, not Charlie Gillett from Record Mirror, not Geoffrey Cannon from the Guardian, not Jeremy Deedes of the Evening Standard, not Richard Neville from Oz, not Jonathon Green from Friends, not Keith Altham from the NME, not Mark Williams from IT, not Jonathan Demme, the London correspondent of Fusion, not the five winners of a Melody Maker competition and their partners, not my MM colleague Royston Eldridge and certainly not me — had prior knowledge of a note of their music. But, sadly, we were unanimous: their subdued country-rock was best described as nondescript. And, anxious as we all were not to be seen to have been seduced by the hype and the free trip, barely any of us had a kind word to say about them in print afterwards.
Some members of the trip, feeling the effects of the free booze and other stimulants taken on what had turned out to be a 15-hour journey, left immediately after the Brinsleys’ set to check in at the party’s designated midtown hotel — the Royal Manhattan on 8th Avenue — and find other ways of spending Saturday night in the Apple. Those of us who stayed were rewarded by an inspired performance from Van Morrison, featuring the band and mostly the songs from the recently released Moondance, and a pretty good one from Quicksilver Messenger Service, to whom Dino Valenti (the writer of “Get Together”) had recently been added as lead singer, delivering memorable versions of “What About Me” and “Fresh Air”. At which point we all headed off for a few hours’ sleep. All except Pete Frame, bless him, who stuck around for the midnight show and reported the next day that the Brinsleys’ second set was much more relaxed and enjoyable.
There was supposed to be a press conference with the band at the hotel the following morning. I remember people standing around drinking coffee, all vaguely embarrassed by what had transpired the night before. Charlie Gillett delivered the proofs of The Sound of the City, which he had been correcting on the flight over, to his US publisher and invited me to go downtown with him to the apartment of Robert Christgau, the self-styled dean of American rock critics, where we spent an hour or so. After that we went to Sam Goody’s, where I picked up two copies of the original US issue of The Velvet Underground and Nico, with unpeeled bananas, from a large pile in the cut-out section at just 99 cents apiece. And then we were taken to the airport for a comparatively uneventful overnight flight home, arriving in a rainy London at the end of an adventure destined to enter the annals of rock infamy. While the rest of us resumed our normal lives, it would take the Brinsleys a long time to recover from their sudden notoriety.
* The photograph shows (from left) keyboardist Bob Andrews, drummer Billy Rankin, singer/bassist Nick Lowe and guitarist Brinsley Schwarz. For an extensively researched look at the business background to the affair, I recommend the relevant chapters of Will Birch’s highly entertaining history of pub rock, No Sleep Till Canvey Island (Virgin Books, 2000), and the same author’s Nick Lowe biography, Cruel to Be Kind (Constable, 2019). Part of Van Morrison’s set that night turned up on YouTube a few years ago; it has since vanished, alas.
This is the most detailed version I’ve read of the saga (so far).
Two or three of years back Brinsley very kindly fixed up my old Epiphone at Chandlers Guitars in Kew. Wow!
Great column. DJ
Extraordinary that this was 50 years ago Richard. I still recall reading your MM review when I should really have been studying for my imminent ‘O’ Levels. That review kindled an interest in Van Morrison – I’d heard bits of ‘Astral Weeks’ on the radio but hadn’t ‘got’ it but then I was only 14 – and also Quicksilver Messenger Service who, if received wisdom is correct, never captured on record how good they were live (‘Happy Trails’ excepted).Despite it all (sorry) the Brinsleys were a fine band.
Richard, I was mightily entertained by your 50th anniversary report of the event and I thank you for mentioning my book No Sleep Till Canvey Island, and the recent Nick Lowe Biography. I continue to research the topic and have just posted a few snaps on Instagram @nicklowebiography #PLUg I still believe it’s a movie waiting to happen.
Any plans to republish ‘No Sleep’ as a physical book, Will? I somehow missed it first time around. (I don’t care for reading via Kindle etc.)
I am working towards an update. May take a year or two. W.
Wonderful. You’ve just sold the first one. 🙂
Some decent work from the Brinsley after this infamous debacle. Couple of fave tracks “Country Girl” and “Funk Angel” from ‘Despite it all’ album and always enjoy that BBC staple of “Surrender to the Rhythm” The one where Nick Lowe pulls off the fine art of chewing gum and delivering ace nonchalant vocal.
What a wonderfully-told story.
Excellent, I remember reading about this in ZigZag I think, but you’ve filled in the details.
Did you attend the National Association of Rock Writers’ Convention in memphis a few years later? I’d love to read your thoughts on that.
Great insight into one of worst PR disasters in the history of rock ‘n roll. However, you state that it would take the Brinsleys a long time to recover from their sudden notoriety and whilst it’s true that they never went on to find commercial success, their influence on British pop culture was huge. They and their fellow pub rocker such as the The KIlburns, The Feelgoods and The Kursaals offered an alternative to the pompous po-faced prog rock of Jethro Tull, ELP, Yes and Pink Floyd. For the price of a pint you could go down to your local pub (in my case the Hope and Anchor in Upper Street) and have a couple of hours of sweaty rock ‘n roll with a few soul classics thrown in. I remember The Brinsleys last gig at the Marquee. They closed the first set and opened the second set with Judy Clay & William Bell’s Private Number. Nick Lowe went on to have a reasonable career as a singer, songwriter and producer. Ian Gomm had a couple of US hits. Brinsley Schwarz and Bob Andrews joined Graham Parker & the Rumour. Fine band.
I knew of it at the time, but great to read such a detailed account. Under a similar heading, file “If all the people who claim to have been at Ally Pally for the 14-hour Technicolor Dream had really been there…” The giveaway for me is that most of them rave about Pink Floyd’s performance there. Completely wayward, disheveled music, amps and PA distorting beyond dire, and another band playing, simultaneously, to the same standards, on a stage literally a few feet away. All in a freezing aircraft hanger.
Splendid. Re: Robert Christgau – I flicked through an anthology of his ‘reviews’ a few years back and was baffled at how he or anyone else regarded him as a dean of anything.
Wonderful article and fascinating to learn the full background to this event. Also evokes further fond memories of how good the Melody Maker was 50 years ago
Lovely memory RW, I posted a clip of Nick Lowe today on Facebook you might enjoy. And isn’t Murder Most Foul just what we need to pore over during these unsettling times? As most of your thoughts are about “jazz” I leave you with Bob on the subject “What would some parent say to his kid if the kid came home with a glass eye, a Charlie Mingiues record and a pocketful of feathers?… And the poor kid would have to stand there with water in his shoes, a bow tie on hisser and soot during out of his belly button and say “Jazz, father, I’ve been following jazz”.
This may seem strange but one of the most enjoyable musical evenings of my life was a concert by the Brinsleys at a church hall in Gillingham, Kent, A group of us invited them down for the gig…..pretty much a private event. I believe it was sometime in 1972. My most vivid memory of the evening was their cover of Brown Sugar which had us all leaping around euphorically. Wonderful atmosphere. Thanks guys!
I saw Brinsley Scwartz that same year -70 – in Dublin and recall a most insipid diluted incarnation of the Band. However Lowe went on to make some fine solo records while Bob Andrews and Martin Belmont were core members of one the all-time great live acts, Graham Parker’s Rumour.
……forgetting Brinsley himself and incorrectly adding MB, ex-Ducks Deluxe. Oops !
Growing up in Aylesbury in the seventies I went to Aylesbury Grammar School In 1973 I organised the Christmas dance Through various connections I managed to book The Brinsleys to come and play They turned up (late ) in a battered white Transit van and were thoroughly lovely people When they started with Surrender to the Rhythm the whole place went wild and it just got better .Aylesbury of course has a very special place in the history of music with Friars Aylesbury being one of the most famous music clubs ever ..and it still continues 50 years on thanks to the love and dedication of David Stopps and others
Kippington Lodge were named after a psychiatric hospital in a select part of Sevenoaks. Years ago a friend leant me his copy of “Tomorrow Today” and I can still remember the song.