MIMO - When Music is Your Fix

Jamming in the 60s – A Night At Les Cousins

In my last posting I talked about the London jamming scene in the 60s and how I was lucky enough to become a part of that vibrant moment in British musical history. A number of venues existed to support that scene – Studio 51, (where the Stones rehearsed and had a residency in their early days), The Roundhouse (home of so much innovation in British alternative music), The Speakeasy (where superstars would frequently crash the stage in varying degrees of sobriety!) and the 100 Club and the Marquee (where many bands got their start and where, on certain nights, organized jam sessions were held). In addition one could turn up at almost any gig and find one’s way onstage, even knowing a friend of a friend was enough to get you up there – after that it was up to you. In this way I created relationships with the likes of Peter Green, Kevin Ayers and many more whom I first encountered in jamming sessions.

One of the most interesting weekly events was the all-nighter at Les Cousins. A nondescript Soho cellar, Saturday night was given over to the all night gig. Paul Simon had a long time residency there but by the time I arrived on the scene there was a whole new generation of performers queueing up to have their name on the list. As a pretty competent flautist at that time, I was keenly sought after to ‘enhance’ some of the performances and often I’d play an entire set with an artist performing songs I’d never heard before! Patrons paid a 5 shillings (25p or 10 cents then!) entrance fee and descended into a room where the stage faced two or three long benches, usually occupied by comatose, often snoring, bodies. The bulk of the audience was off to either the left or right side of the room and it was very disconcerting to perform directly at the sleepers. Particularly as they never realized just what and whom they were missing.

For example there is one night there I’ll never forget. I went down to play with Bridget St. John and John Martyn, both of whom I had played with on many occasions. John’s friend Nick Drake was there, but didn’t like performing and the sleepers definitely sealed his lack of interest! A gangly American I’d never seen before took the stage – his name, James Taylor! He sounded pretty good too and told me he was living in London. Next up was Mimi Farina, Joan Baez’ very talented sister, passing through London – she’d heard about the club and headed down to sing a few numbers. Then came Cat Stevens, already a pop star but here revealing an acoustic side no one knew about. John Martyn went on solo, brought up Bridget and then me, then he left the stage to Bridget and me. Nick Drake hovered around trying to shush the chatter of the patrons while we tried to engage with the one occupant of the benches who had stirred himself to listen, but fell asleep again in the middle of the second song. We finished our set and then I set off for home – probably around 3am. I’ve often wondered who else may have been there that night – possibly the legendary Jackson C. Frank who had returned to the UK but was in the throes of depression. He hung out a lot with Al Stewart, and Al was often there. It’s tempting to imagine Nick Drake and Jackson over in the corner listening to us play – in these days of camera phones and instant uploads all these legendary performances would be up on Youtube and Facebook before the gig was over – but can you imagine James Taylor, John Martyn, Bridget St. John, Mimi Farina, Cat Stevens and Nick Drake all in the same gig for 10 cents! And sleeping through it all!

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About the Author


John Altman is a BAFTA and Emmy award winning composer, musician and conductor and was recently made Doctor of Music at the University of Sussex, School of Media, Film and Music. John has a long and distinguished career in music, including performing with Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Sting. His film credits include period music for Titanic and Shall We Dance. In addition, John has scored over 5,000 TV commercials and is cited as among the top composers in British advertising.

A brief look at who John Altman has shared the stage with or worked with since the 1950s:

  • the 50s - appeared with Judy Garland onstage at the London Palladium
  • the 60s - played with Jimi Hendrix, Fleetwood Mac, Muddy Waters
  • the 70s - played with Bob Marley, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Elton John. Wrote for Monty Python and the Rutles
  • the 80s - wrote for Simple Minds, George Michael. Played with Slim Gaillard, Chet Baker. Sting, Phil Collins, Jeff Beck
  • the 90s - wrote for Bjork, Tina Turner, Barry White, Diana Ross, James Bond, Titanic. Played with Chaka Khan, Lionel Richie, Bill Wyman
  • the 00s - played with Prince, Amy Winehouse, Pharrell, Black Eye Peas, Jessie J, Joss Stone
  • the 10s - still standing!

Posted in: Featured, Music History 101


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