Lincolnshire Saved My Life
5, 4, 3, 2, 1… and with the crackle of fireworks and a cascade of beats from Gilson Lavis, we’ll welcome in 2024. This month we’ll meet the South Lincolnshire drummer, artist and former member of Squeeze who really is cool for cats…
Auld acquaintances, at this time of year, shouldn’t be forgotten. Having said that, new acquaintances can be equally memorable. Our kitchen table conversation with Gilson Lavis, for example, is bound to be remembered as one of the funniest and one of the most touching interviews in a very long time.
As New Year’s Eve teeters on the stroke of midnight and as Jools Holland begins his hootenanny countdown, beside him will be his long-time collaborator, trusty drummer and fellow bandmate in the New Wave band Squeeze. For now though, we’re in Gilson’s studio, one room of which is almost entirely filled with different drums.
It’s not the largest of spaces and has a low, intimate ceiling. It’s a converted barn too with thick stone walls. And so when, for the camera, Gilson begins to perform, the speed, the pace and the sound is phenomenal. Muscle memory? Super-human co-ordination? Natural rhythm? Haven’t got a clue, but it’s very impressive.
“I’ve just come back from being on tour with the orchestra,” he says, referring to the Rhythm & Blues Orchestra co-founded with Jools Holland in 1987. “So I’m rehearsing the different acts which will appear on the hootenanny this year.”
Gilson has appeared in every single one of the New Year’s Eve celebrations since the first one in 1993. That makes this one the 30th anniversary, and Gilson’s part in the broadcast is particularly important given that when the floor manager tip him the wink, it’s Gilson who counts in the song and keeps everyone in tempo.
Think of him as the guy who’s walking the bridal party down the aisle and gets them all to set off on the right foot. Or is it the left?
In any case, Gilson’s talent began as a teenager, when he first picked up the drumsticks at the age of 13. Born in Bedfordshire his mother and father worked as the area manager for a building firm and as a shop manager respectively.
Hardly bohemian folk, but they were very supporting indeed, even when, at the age of 15 Gilson announced that he was leaving home to move to Scotland, to become the drummer in a band called the Bo-Weevils.
“I was very young, not at all worldly-wise and I came in for a bit of teasing and banter, but it was my first taste of life on the road, and I did enjoy it even though I was quite homesick and eventually returned to Bedfordshire after about six months.”
Gilson formed his own band, Headline News, and over the next few years, ended up touring in European countries like West Germany on bases for British and US military personnel, with particular repertoires for different gigs; The Animals for the enlisted officers, The Supremes for the NCOs and later on, in the officers’ mess, Misty.
With the tour at an end, the group of musicians found themselves in Hamburg’s Kaiserkeller ‘K52’ club with every few gigs yielding funds for a coveted ticket home. Lots would be drawn, and gradually the six-piece band turned into a five-piece, four-piece and eventually a three-piece. Like a captain going down with the ship, Gilson – working as a minicab driver to shore up finances – drove his employer’s old Citröen cab down to the ferry, took his drum kit out of the boot, and left his keys in the ignition, returning home.
Back in the UK, Gilson secured a Cambridge residency at The Rex club and alongside myriad hypnotists, strongmen and house bands. Eventually he was sought out by a promoter with a less than reassuring name, Mervyn Conn, who was seeking a house band for Chuck Berry’s European tour.
Touring and old friends
“He was… a handful,” says Gilson and imparts one of many unprintable but very funny anecdotes during our interview. “He was a huge name and a real talent, and the profile of the people you work with yields people of comparable profile. I was soon working with the Four Tops in a residency in Southend, a venue which attracted names like Bruce Forsyth – one of the nicest people to work with – any comedians like Little & Large, Tommy Cooper [cue another anecdote] and Bob Monkhouse [very sharp, quick-witted]. I also worked with Lulu in the early days and about 50 years later I’d work with her again, again, very lovely.
“Another tour working with Chuck followed, this would be in the early 1970s and at the time I was drinking an awful lot. There are some professions, some situations more conducive to creating what we’d call a drinking culture today, and being a touring musician is definitely such an environment. Mervin sought me out for the tour and against my better judgement I undertook it, but I was soon drinking heavily and inevitably returned home unemployed and broke, not least because it was 1974 and Ted Heath’s three-day week was taking its toll on the economy; people certainly couldn’t frequent clubs and gigs as they used to.”
“Around the time I was touring with the Springfields – and backstage the club’s owner came to see me, put a large Scotch in my hand and delivered the news that my father had died. Both of my parents were lovely people and so supportive of my career, so it was heartbreaking, but the club owner insisted ‘on you go’ and ushered me on stage. It wasn’t long before I was back home.”
Bricks and sticks
“Mum moved to a bungalow near Bedford and at the time I was working for The London Brick company, stacking bricks as they came out of the kiln. It was the hardest gig I’ve ever had and my hands were ruined. Mum could see I was desperate to get back into music and used some of dad’s money to buy me a black Ludwig Octopus drum kit, and more importantly, put up with me practising in the front room.”
“Melody Maker was an essential read for anyone in the industry, and in late 1974 I responded to an advert from a band seeking a drummer. Securing an audition I took the front passenger seat out of my mum’s mustard-coloured Mini, loaded the drums in, and headed to Deptford to audition for the band.”
“The band was already in its infancy, led by Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford, with Jools already on board and Harri Kakoulli joining on bass at the same time I joined. The name Squeeze was one of several names pulled out of a hat [an alternative name that Squeeze might have been known by is unprintable!].”
The Squeeze years
“After touring pubs and clubs for a year or two, our manager Miles Coupland encouraged us to record an EP entitled ‘Packet of Three’ under our record label Deptford Fun City, but in 1978 we were signed to A&M Records and gained John Cale as a producer. As a founding member of the Velvet Underground he had real talent but didn’t think we had a single.”
“We released Take Me I’m Yours and that served as a catalyst to getting us better known. There was a school of thought in British music that to be a success you have to ‘break America,’ but a lot of our most successful recording artists – Cliff Richard – were never that big in the US. Squeeze did gain a cult following in the states, but we were there, touring, when our second album, Cool For Cats, was released in 1979. There were screaming fans, excitement and appearances on Top of the Pops but when the band properly exploded we were in the states. I worked on about five albums with the band’s original lineup, but success does strange things and everything casts a shadow. I was drinking very heavily and both Glenn and Chris wanted to form their own band and do their own thing.”
A move to Lincolnshire
“I moved to Lincolnshire initially because it was quiet and cheap. I was exhausted, because if being a recovering alcoholic is hard, being a drinker is even more difficult. I still live in the cottage and it was derelict at the time so it’s taken a lot of time and love to create somewhere that’s home.”
“The cottage has an old pig sty at the back and the plan was to never be in the music industry again; to just retire and to maybe reach the drums to others. It was a phone call from Julian [Jools] who asked me to do one more gig. It was a charity event with Prince Edward in the audience, a fundraiser. I refused several times but I think I’ve only got about three refusals in me and in the end I conceded and agreed to do it.”
Julian had limited success with another band he formed, Jools Holland his Millionaires, but his TV career was taking off not least with the success of The Tube, the music-oriented youth show which attracted some really big names. Another show took place in New Orleans and then duo shows, and eventually in 1987 Jools Holland’s Rhythm and Blues Orchestra was formed.
Gilson’s painting career
“I credit Lincolnshire with saving my life, among other counterpoints like my wife Nicky and my discovery of painting. I’d enjoyed it at school and I was pretty good at drawing. Years of drinking had ruined my teeth and I found myself at the time in Budapest, having my smile repaired. I’d booked into a flat, the condition of which had been drastically overstated, and found myself in a squat.”
“The TV at least worked, but with just a single channel, broadcasting in Hungarian, it left a bit to be desired, and so I picked up a pad and pen and began sketching, just with a biro.”
“That continued when we were on tour, and I found myself in a hotel, not wanting to go out drinking. I’d draw the musicians or people we worked with and our tour manager Steve Taylor saw a sketch and wanted to have it. It really fed into my sense of self-worth and it was a healthy interest to channel my time.”
“My interest in art great, sketching family pets and the people I’d worked with until I reasoned that if I could sketch in biro, I could probably paint too, which I did, improving over the years.”
Gilson has been painting for over a decade and adjacent to the room where his drum kit is – and where gold discs are mounted on the wall – is his painting studio, with spatters of acrylic paint, a nearly-complete commission on an easel and the de rigueur turntable and selection of vinyl records providing a soundtrack.
There’s another room too. Behind a barn door is a small gallery with Gilson’s private artwork, framed and hanging around the room. These are the signed editions, from Rod Stewart to Kylie, to Paul Weller to Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards to a couple of Lulus – one depicting the artist the first time the two worked together, and one from their tour just a few years ago. Each one has the signature of both Gilson and the musician depicted, each one in Gilson’s trademark monochrome chiaroscuro style.
“Gilson only provides original artwork, no prints or limited editions, and has always been reluctant to pursue tuition of either the drums or art as was the original plan when he moved to Lincolnshire, citing that he’s self-taught. Taking a quick peek at the vinyl by the music centre it’s a varied mix, as will be the selection that he’s performing at this year’s hootenanny.
“We’ve some real talent this year and it’s as varied as ever,” says Gilson, making us promise that we won’t give this year’s performers away. It should be a surprise, and it’s a broadcast that has always commanded respect because of the quality of its artists and its respect for ‘proper’ music and performers.”
“Today we’re force-fed commercial pop. The nuances have changed and the lyrics of modern music have stopped being about love and they’re increasingly concerned with sex instead. I must admit I struggle to listen to music without deconstructing it and analysing it. And when a Squeeze track comes on the radio it almost goes over my head. It’s like a lifetime away!”
Hootenanny, though, remains a fun celebration not just of New Year’s Eve but of musical quality. It’s designed to appear like a live broadcast, but the reality of producing the show is that it’s logistically impossible to get all of the talent together and broadcast it live with an audience of about 250 at 11.30pm on New Year’s Eve.
It’s recorded a day or two before and so Gilson and Nicky will be enjoying a rather quieter New Year’s Eve together, here in Lincolnshire, a county evidently well-suited to reflecting on auld acquaintances who remain in memory and have been immortalised on canvas, too.
Jools’ Annual Hootenanny will be broadcast on 31st December from 11.30pm. For more information on Gilson’s art, including the availability of commissions, see www.gilsonlavisart.uk.