All eyes were on me when I took over from Bryan “Taffy” Helps as Band Sergeant Major WOII in late 1975. There were some people who were probably waiting for me to fail, given that I hadn’t been to Kneller Hall School of Music, nor had learned to play an instrument since early childhood. I was all the more determined to do well and willing to ask for advice from senior members of the Band and of course from the Band Master, who by now was Roger Swift. They were all willing to give me the help I asked for and I was grateful for this. I had to make sure I played my part to the best of my ability. It required a lot of research, practice and knowledge of musical history, and thankfully there were people who were available to guide me in all these areas and to give me tips on how to conduct.
I had clear ideas on what I wanted to achieve in my new role. I wanted to bring the Band together in a way that would give us an even better sense of unity than we already had. I wanted us to be able to put on entertainment that would have a wider appeal than just the normal military music we played in our daily engagements. It was traditional to have an annual show in the Band to which guests were invited from our Regiment and other regiments as well as German civilians with whom we had dealings during the year, but I wanted something that wives and children could also come to and enjoy. I wanted to stage it in nice surroundings in our own block instead of other regimental facilities.
One of the first things I did was to make changes in the Band club. I asked permission to take over the whole attic in the Band Block to make a social club with proper stage and dressing rooms, so we could rehearse and perform cabarets to entertain the Regiment’s families and wives at Christmas and other times. Band members all pitched in to do the conversion in our own time. Doing so brought out all the various talents and skills that different band members had, such as carpentry, electrical knowhow, costume making and so on. Mick Matthews, the Roberts brothers, Steve Down, Steve Clayton, John Applegarth and Jim Bowman are just some of those who were involved. We wanted the bar to be the best in the Regiment, so we asked a local German brewery if they could help in any way. They agreed to help so we got permission for them to come in and do the work and they created by far the best bar around for us. It cost us no more than giving them a guaranteed market for their products. As well as a bar, the band built a fully equipped ten-pin bowling alley, and we had table tennis, as well as table football, table skittles, darts and other bar games. It was a complete and well equipped social club.
Once the Band Club was ready, we put on many cabarets where all band members played their part, either as musicians, actors, backstage helpers or bar workers. It was one hundred percent Band effort. I wanted to show what a military band could do. We could all be musicians and performers in the widest sense of the word. By involving Band members in a show production, they would use not only the skills and knowledge that they already had, but would be stretched to research material and learn new things as well, so as to develop themselves as performers. They would have to create appropriate costumes for the different acts we performed. Many of them discovered that they had hidden talents that up to this point they hadn’t been called on to use. In our cabarets we wanted to include lively light music of different styles and genres from around the world, whether German Tyrolean music or Berg vagabond songs, popular Irish refrains, West Indian calypsos, the African songs of the popular musical of the day “Ipi Tombi” or North American country songs about the plight of the Native American Indians. Jug bands and jazz, chart topping songs from the hit parade and instrumental solos played by individual musicians were all part of our cabaret programmes. It was a complete contrast to the kind of music we played all year round in the Concert Band or the military marches we played on the drill square and for parades.
Ticket sales and bar takings were carefully accounted for and the books were audited. Any profit we made was ploughed back into improving the facilities and buying items that the band needed. The main one of these was the Band minibus which we paid cash for and used to get us to engagements. We also hired it out to other people in other regiments to bring in even more profit for the Band. We only allowed the Band members with the correct licences to drive it whether we were using it ourselves or hiring it out.
The Band Cabarets began to get a reputation in our own regiment and in other military bands and tickets were in hot demand. Everyone looked forward to the 22nd December each year when we held the Cabaret. It seemed to be a fitting finale to end the year as Band Christmas leave began as soon as the cabaret ended and single soldiers could catch the ferry at Zeebrugge, Ostende or Le Havre to spend Christmas and New Year with their families. It was always stressed that they refrain from drinking and they always did. I felt very proud of them all for being so disciplined in this respect. The regimental cooks put on a superb buffet. It was a special event, the highlight of the year, where everyone could dress up and enjoy themselves. We were the only army band that put on such a gala occasion we could all be proud of.
I had my biggest test coming up in my first year as BSM because we were to have a Kneller Hall Inspection in 1976. These inspections were held every five years, but our turn came round when I had hardly settled into my role as Band Sergeant Major. Our finances, our accommodation, our Band library and musical instruments as well as musical presentation on and off the parade square would come under scrutiny in this inspection. I wanted our Band to do very well in this so we would all have to do a lot of very hard work. I saw it as an important part of the inspection that it wasn’t just the music and musicianship they were interested in. I decided that we would have our inspection in our Band Social Club instead of in the Sergeants’ Mess or elsewhere in the Regiment. We worked tirelessly at improving the appearance of every area of the Club and Band Block. The Band librarian prepared the library and music for inspection. Each band member was responsible for decorating and improving the appearance of their own room so the band accommodation looked more like luxury apartments than barracks, with modern furnishings, carpets and curtains in every room. The Band Master selected our test piece of music and we rehearsed it to perfection. As Band Sergeant Major, I had to practise conducting and rehearsing the Band as I would be called upon to do this during the inspection. On the parade square, the Band learned by heart all their music for the marching display we performed, so that we did not need march-cards and the ceremonial trumpeters practised their fanfares and the drill they had to perform while playing them. We put on a programme that showcased the wide variety of music we could play. Apart from the test piece, and the regimental music played by the Concert Band, various groups within the band performed their specialities, including the Clarinet Choir, The Brass Quartet, The Wind Quintet, The Regimental Cavalry Trumpeters, The Shades of Green Regimental Dance Band, The Dixieland Band and a selection of Cabaret Acts.
On the day of the inspection, everything went as we rehearsed it, so there was a great sigh of relief when it was all over. At the end of the performance, the Inspecting Officers addressed the Band and a Band photograph was taken together with them. Then we had informal drinks and a buffet in our Band Club Bar. After extensive checks and audits in the following weeks, we finally heard the results of our inspection. We had been awarded “Outstanding”, the highest grade that can be achieved, a grade that has hardly ever been achieved by any other regimental band.
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