Charles, Lawrence, David Bowie, and me

My first public gig as a musician was at David Bowie’s Beckenham Arts Lab. From then on, my musical career was downhill all the way.

It was 1969. I was a prototype schoolboy nerd who was drawn to making music despite little talent, so I built a one-of-a-kind electronic music synthesizer out of discrete electronic components and army-surplus parts, including some monstrous electromechanical devices called uniselectors. The Beast generated impressively complex loops of sounds and was controlled by hundreds of unlabeled knobs and switches, which made me the only person who could play it.

Uniselectors — a key component of early telephone exchanges. Lawrence’s description of The Beast: “Adrian Segar had built a synthesizer, which was also a sequencer before its time, which made a loud mechanical noise we had to drown out by playing loudly. It played bass as well as higher sounds. It looked like the controls of a spaceship.”

With this dubious achievement, I joined two friends, Charles Hayward and Lawrence Ball in a short-lived band named Snowfish. We had a few more gigs, including our entry in the annual British Melody Maker Rock Contest — where I recall we placed next to last, beating only a band with the memorable-but-not-in-a-good-way name The Revolving Sugar Bowl — but Oxford University beckoned, Charles & Lawrence stayed in London, and when I emigrated to the United States, The Beast stayed with a friend of Lawrence’s where it slowly fell apart. Sadly, no photographs seemed to have survived of those days.

Both Charles and Lawrence went on to become internationally known musicians: Charles a well-respected drummer, formerly with This Heat (“the Beatles of modern experimental music”), and Lawrence a performer and prolific composer who has collaborated with Pete Townshend since 2006.

The last time I saw Lawrence was in 2001 when he visited me in Vermont. But I haven’t seen Charles since we were at school together, though I’ve enjoyed many of his YouTube performance videos over the years.

So I was happy to discover (thanks Lawrence!) a recent talk/performance Charles gave to young students at the University of East London.

A few excerpts follow, but I recommend you watch Charles’ video as he shares, in an entertaining way, how a musician (and artist) thinks. One of the many things I like about the video is that Charles talks as he moves around the stage setting up his drum kit.

A few quotes and {impressions/comments} — but watch!

“The way I share myself with the world is primarily [through] music.”

“I’ve been playing drums since I was ten.”

“The first thing I always bring along with me is the chair…if I’m not sitting strong and stable [when I’m playing], all the bits are going all over the place.”

{Charles tells a story about how he turned a silly text he received from a kid “I’ve been watching you. Did I wake you up?” into a song (which he performs).}

“When [music] is really cooking, I’m obeying it. I’m just listening to it and it tells me what to do, and I do that thing…I have to keep myself open all the time so I’m ready to serve the music.”

“I know almost nothing, and that sense of not knowing means that it’s constantly a discovery—and also I can change, because I haven’t got anything to prove! What’s the next thing? I’ll find out what I need to know to make that next thing happen.” {I work the same way.}

{Charles talks about and demonstrates two drumming areas that he’s working on at the moment:} “…where I have the most problems—that’s the edge for me.”

His final demonstration/performance: “This is almost nothing but it’s great.” {Subtle work is often the most rewarding.}

Image of Charles Hayward by roomtemperature.org / Fergus Kellywww.flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0

  • Lawrence Ball

    Ahah! Adrian, I propose that we subvert this notion of your downward trajectory by revisiting Snowfish – recording and/or performance – again one day before long!!