I’d always been attracted to the mystique of the man with one name. Prince, Morrissey, Cher, Elton from the band Elton John. And that’s how it was when i first saw Bouillabaisse.
The summer of ‘73 was my first ever festival, and little did I know that on that day at the Middlesborough Celebration of Performing Arts and Crafts, I was witnessing the beginnings of a band soon to become a household name – The Anderson Flange Explosion. I stumbled on them almost by accident – my bouts of glaucoma were oddly at their worst when i was in my teens, and for twenty minutes I thought I was watching a transcription of the Kama Sutra into sock-puppetry – but when my vision cleared i realised I was falling under the sultry, sensual spell of their ode to unrequited love, ‘Milky Baps By Night’. It wasn’t just the setting, the stage surrounded by the ornate carvings of wildlife jointly commissioned by the Teeside branch of the National Trust and the Middlesborough Lady’s Guild, or even the song itself, with its haunting refrain of ‘Knead these baps / These baps of fire / The milky baps / Of my desire’, which first struck me. It was the frontman, Bouillabaisse himself, caressing the microphone like it was his silky lovechild and almost making the audience feel guilty for intruding as he sang to it from the depths of his sexy heart. His piercing locks (of hair) were like great slabs of emotion, buttressed by the creamy licks of lead axe-priest Holt Stonespeach, the omnipotent bass-curdle of Roger Worthington, and the elemental percussion of seasoned sticksman Florb. He had one of those faces that reminded you of the best bits of all the faces of one’s past. I felt like I was being released, liberated to be even in the presence of this shepherd of sound, with his powerful stage presence – shapely, yet resplendent in an amorphous shapelessness, instantly recognisable, yet distant to the point of ineffability, like creme fraiche against a white background. It was at this crucial moment in my previously repressed youth that I realised music, and even life itself, would never be the same again.
I knew I had to follow them. I managed to sneak backstage by claiming that i was actually the band’s manager dressed as a teenage fangirl for their own amusement. There I saw the man himself, all 6 foot 4 of him stretched out on a sofa. throwing caution to the wind with his leather socks and his wicker waistcoat. Even offstage he looked like some kind of fiery emblem, a free spirit. He offered me a drag on his inhaler. Me! Just a girl, plain Jane from Teeside, getting a baptism of air into the pantheon of the gods. I asked him how The Anderson Flange Explosion created such a beautiful sound. He said, with an air both intensely casual and flippantly serious, that it may have been due to a deal made with the devil at a crossroads, or equally the presence of Vocal Zone lozenges on the band’s rider. I asked if I could join them on their travels to the furthest reaches of the musical universe. He said they had a gig in Northampton next week, and they could do with somebody to help balance the weight in the van for the journey. I was infatuated. I’ll never forget his final, enigmatic words of that day – ’we nearly skidded off the m6 this morning, bastard caravan cut in front of us. Miracle Roger reacted so quickly – dropped my lunchbox he broke so fast’. I couldn’t carry on with the stifling mundanity of home – it was time to get on the road and live the dream.
Life with the Flange was idyllic at first. The day they received a glowing 3 star review from the Wolverhampton Herald seemed like some kind of dawn, a message that the world would finally open up to the mysterious complexities of their talent. It really felt like we were shaking up the establishment, and many people weren’t ready for that. The night in Frodsham where Holt decided, after one half of local cider too many, to debut his new 20 minute solo mini-opera “The Queen Is a Knob (And Parliament’s Burnin’ [Oh Yeah] )” was met with near rioting, where all 14 of the audience stormed out, some near tears. The Boy Scout’s Association not only banned them from that particular meeting centre, but tried to damage their reputation on the scout hut circuit worldwide. But the band were never knocked by it, it just made their passion for a musical revolution even stronger. As for Bouillabaisse, the new songs were coming thick and fast, and I was his muse. We had become inseparable. He said he had never heard anyone play a tambourine quite so loudly. He said when I played his sinuses didn’t feel so bunged up anymore, and that I inspired him to work through the asthma and become the voice of a generation. When I saw his thick beard glow red reflecting off the sink during the first of his coughing fits i ever witnessed, i could see the blood of all wasted youth. I could see something of my own pain, of mankind’s trauma. We shared our first kiss afterwards, and as I stayed up through the night thinking about it, he worked until sunrise writing ‘Lagoon’, a 10 minute suite on Swindon’s roundabout system. I realised when I read it the next day that it wasn’t just a hymn to that system – but an ongoing struggle against the current system that rules our lives. It felt like us against the world. ‘Round and round / go painted lines / in Swindon town / Where hope it shi-i-i-nes’.
He was prolific. Nothing escaped his withering gaze, the short-sighted stare of a crusader towards the musical horizon. Traffic wardens, the switch to decimal currency, Vietnam. These were topics nobody had spoken about before. We used to gather in the van and listen to him read his latest lyrics with wonder and delight – and it felt like a sermon, a missive from the future. I remember asking in disbelief how he’d come up with the incendiary lyrics of ‘Rubbish Dump’ (‘My heart is like a rubbish dump / When you smile my legs may as well be stumps’). He just sighed, tossed back his flowing ginger hair and said, in a voice of infinite sadness, ‘It’s a disgrace how people deposit refuse in this country. You’d think some kind of recycling scheme could be put in place’. Bouillabaisse was the first person i’d ever heard who could picture a world where different coloured bins could be used to house different waste. And through the power of his music, he planned to make this, and all the other causes he championed, a reality. To be by his side through this journey into the unknown was nothing short of breathtaking. We were vigilantes. We managed to anger the authorities a number of times. Roger’s belief that double yellow lines were the product of capitalist oppression may have cost us a fortune in fines, but it was what he, and we, put our faith in. More often than not, Florb would be reprimanded and sometimes even given official warnings for drinking within city centre zones. Bouillabaisse himself was typically aloof. He’d say that The Anderson Flange Explosion was about an escape from ‘coercion and constraint’ – and for this reason he’d often go out without a jacket in temperatures going down to -2 degrees. What I only now realise, writing many years later, was that for me the music was secondary to a way of life, an escape. It was us against the world.
But this atmosphere of freedom soon soured when the band began to court major interest. As we started attracting up to 100 people at shows, the new excesses of our popularity started to put a strain on our dynamic. The band’s rider had started to put a financial strain on the whole project – as all manner of sandwiches, fruit teas, and even at one point a whole salmon threatened to push us into self-parody. Florb had started to develop a dangerous taste for Alka-Seltzer. ‘Just to sweep away the cobwebs before the show’, he’d say, popping three away as if they were mint imperials. If that wasn’t enough Bouillabaisse’s asthma was getting worse. He’d even tried antibiotics, but he found that sustaining the piercing high notes needed in extended vocal workouts such as ‘Salamander of Guilt’ and ‘Don’t touch me there, Janine’ was becoming a strain on his health. He became insular and jaded, increasingly cut off from the rest of the band. His diet had been reduced to pumpkin seeds and strands of his own hair. This would soon have a dangerous effect on his songwriting as he entered a more experimental phase. Songs like ‘Crispy Bowling Arrangement (parts 2-7)’ and the incredibly misguided piece ‘Wok The Boat’, a 40 minute collage marrying atonal violin playing and an extended field recording of a nearby traffic jam interspersed with samples from a documentary about Hiroshima and his own unsettling views on the noodle industry as an attempt to displace the sandwich-making that made the British Empire great, were met with confusion and outrage. It certainly lacked the focus of more commercially viable pieces, such as ‘Playing In The Garden’, which were on the verge of breaking into the Hit Parade before his moods set in.
Things finally came to a head after a year on the road together, at the infamous gig in August 1974 now referred to as ‘The Market Harborough Incident’. I can still remember the excitement we felt before it. Our biggest gig yet, playing for 175 at the Parish hall, and we’d heard that a representative from Dental Records was going to be there. It was billed by the Flange faithful as our potential big break. The reality was a mess. The unauthorised sale of joss sticks outside the venue meant that inside the room was far more hot and elderflower-scented than intended. The ambience was nasty from the start. Chants of ‘Stroganoff, stroganoff’ were intended to belittle Bouillabaisse for what was lacking in his unusually tepid performance. Bouillabaisse hadn’t slept, reducing his usual thick baritone to a whisper, and the soaring melodies eagerly awaited in well-honed crowd-pleasers like ‘Touch My Cheese’ were reduced to the sound of a wounded calf. Florb had actually bought his tumbler and tablets onstage with him, and in the melee had poured carbonated liquid all over the amplifiers. The sound cut, and the crowd began to surge forward. Meanwhile, all the joss sticks had the combined effect of setting off the hall’s smoke alarm, spraying everyone with water. The gig had to be pulled after just 20 minutes, and the damage to the woodwork of the building came to a bill of nearly £230. It was a horrible end. The dream was dead, and I realised the group i’d put my faith in weren’t so much preachers of the future as a limp cocktail of damp jeans and bruised ideals.
I never knew what happened to the respective members of the Flange after that day. After that wild year, I went back home to Middlesborough, where I now own an antique shop specialising in porcelain dogs and horses. I’m happy as I am, but could it all have been different? My taste of the rock and roll lifestyle was as vital as I have ever felt – could I have kept it going much longer? What if the world had been ready for Teeside’s finest Baroque-funk-fusion band, and they hadn’t been stratospheres ahead of their time? But maybe my story isn’t unique in those heady days. Maybe everyone had local heroes they looked up to, a Baroque-funk fusion band they adored. The Anderson Flange Explosion were mine.