"It was another boring day and then The Yardbirds knocked on the door
When a peer spoke out against rock music in the House of Lords in spring of 1964, the PR man for The Yardbirds had an idea: to stage a gig in his garden and convince him otherwise...
It was going to be one of those Bank Holiday weekends again on Brighton beach: mods versus rockers; a right royal rumble amid the deafening roar of Harley-Davidsons and Lambrettas.
Meanwhile, in London, The Yardbirds had as usual wowed the hordes of teens at The Marquee club in Soho. Friday nights weren’t the real thing without Eric Clapton and the rest of the band blowing a bluesy storm as the ecstatic, sweaty clubbers danced and gyrated to the exciting new sounds, drank, and popped the occasional purple heart.
At the Palace of Westminster, however, life remained unchanged. Stuffy politicians of all colours remained out of touch with the hedonistic babyboomers, and while Swinging London swung they just moaned – mainly about the fall in moral standards among the young, and the moronic nature of the music they were grooving to. Old School Ties and Labour were united in their condemnation of all things that represented the new pop culture. Back in 1964 there was no guitar-playing PM in Number 10, no media interrogation about a particular politician’s drug habit. Just oodles and oodles of hypocrisy and stuffy old-fartishness.
One late spring afternoon in the House of Lords, Lord Ted Willis (the creator of hit TV cop series Dixon Of Dock Green) stood up and condemned the music of The Beatles and the Stones as “candyfloss culture”. It was essentially rubbish, he maintained, and certainly without longevity. In Willis’s view, Beethoven was king and The Beatles were nothing.
Meanwhile, in another part of town, an 18 year-old rookie PR man called Greg Tesser was already living a dream working as publicity manager for an up-and-coming young band called The Yardbirds. Cutting a cool rock figure – Italian shades, Chelsea boots, American shirts – despite never having fingered a Fender in his life, Tesser undoubtedly looked the part, even if he was still learning the ropes.
But he also had a problem: The Yardbirds’ manager Giorgio Gomelsky. A mad Russian eccentric with a touch of the Rasputin about him, Gomelsky had discovered The Rolling Stones a couple of years earlier, and now he wanted to know how Tesser was going to get his band in the national newspapers.
“This outrageous idea came to me,” Tesser remembers. “I decided we should take the band and go and play a gig on Lord Ted Willis’s front lawn.”
The idea resulted in The Yardbirds being featured in more national papers than the Stones; a story that gave them coverage on a par with The Beatles.
“I was lucky,” Tesser admits. “My father and Ted Willis had been best buddies in the East End during the late 20s and early 30s, and had both involved themselves in the left-wing protest politics of the day. Franco in Spain and Moseley in London were just two of the hate figures young socialists and their supporters marched against. So I thought I had a safety net when it came to turning up at the Labour peer’s Kent home with The Yardbirds and demanding to play in his garden – with all the press in attendance.”
Having phoned up all the national papers, Tesser and The Yardbirds – with the press in tow – descended on Chislehurst on a balmy May afternoon.
But when they turned up on his doorstep, Lord Ted wasn’t at all happy. His daughter Sally, then in her early teens, remembers: “I thought it was going to be the usual very boring day, and suddenly there came a knock at the door. Dad wanted to turn everyone away, as he felt it was just a stunt – which we all knew it was – but I begged him to let the band and their entourage in.”
With Sally’s encouragement, the band were shown where to plug in, and, without much of a soundcheck, set about waking up the neighbourhood.
“The Yardbirds performed about three songs in our garden,” Sally recalls, “and then a neighbour called the police, complaining about all the noise. The police turned up, but because dad was Lord Willis, and had created Dixon Of Dock Green, they let it go on for a little while before it had to stop.”
“Eric Clapton was very reserved in those days,” Tesser says. “He dressed himself in Ivy League clothes, had a crew cut and dug Bob Dylan. His ethos was that the music came first – the blues, that is – and he wasn’t bothered about Top Of The Pops or the charts. He wasn’t a great talker in those days but, having said that, he was the only one of the band to ask for a tour of the Willis home.”
Escorted by Lady Willis, Clapton seemed genuinely interested in all the fixtures and fittings, and a visit to the Willis bed chamber gave the lady of the house the opportunity in years to come to boast that she had “had Eric Clapton in my bedroom”.
And, once Lord Ted Willis had got over the initial irritation of having his Bank Holiday weekend noisily disrupted by these purveyors of “candyfloss culture”, he settled down to make the most of it.
“He enjoyed a friendly, if one-sided, dialogue with Giorgio,” Tesser remembers. “Giorgio revelled in the whole stunt, milking it for all it was worth, while at the same time explaining to Ted the whole ethos and meaning of the blues. I don’t know what they talked about but I’m sure Giorgio must have said ‘knockout’ during their conversation – in those days everything was a ‘knockout’ to him.”
The cynical media types had turned up in droves to witness and photograph this clash of cultures, and soon all the kids in the immediate vicinity arrived, drawn to these blues-wailing pied pipers.
“The band’s lead singer, Keith Relf, was a nice guy,” Tesser says. “He was very intense looking, and slight of build. He had only one lung, and on occasions would collapse on stage. Obviously traumatic moments for him, but they also affected me in a big way, as I was required to contact the press about his condition. It was something I hated, as I felt it was cashing-in on his fragile health.”
Relf seemed to enjoy the whole caper, and even engaged in some chit-chat with Lord Ted on the intricacies of his kind of music. But it was Clapton, so earnest in his love of the blues, who really took to the Peer, and there was no doubting the fact that Eric’s sincerity made a great impression on Willis. So much so, in fact, that many years later he invited the guitarist to the House of Lords for lunch. (Unfortunately, their reunion never happened, due to the tragic death of Eric’s young son, and then the passing of Lord Ted himself.)
The following day the nationals were full of ‘The Yardbirds and Lord Ted Willis’. The Daily Mirror in particular gave it massive coverage on page two. Even the right-wing Daily Telegraph ran the story (with photo), but unfortunately the band’s moniker was given a new twist: throughout the story, the paper repeatedly referred to them as The Yardsticks.
Soon after the Lord Ted stunt, there was another coup for The Yardbirds when they became the first band to play live on TV pop show Ready, Steady Go!.
“Topping the bill with the group was Carl Perkins, a friendly guy who paid the band many compliments,” says Tesser. “It was an amazing end to the week for me as an 18-year-old greenhorn publicist, as well as for the band. Giorgio himself seemed to be permanently on cloud nine. His use of the word ‘knockout’ increased tenfold.”
Tesser’s job was secured, and the stunt had managed to convince the peer about the worth of the emerging rock culture. “I spoke to Lord Ted on the blower a few days after the Ready Steady… gig,” Tesser recalls,” and he seemed genuinely fascinated by The Yardbirds’ music. He told me he never realised how closely linked the blues and rock’n’roll were.
“I think he had become a real convert. It was a shame he and Eric never did get together later at the House of Lords.”
This article originally appeared in Classic Rock #95.
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