Martin Newell: My life in the velvet goldmine

It was 1973 and the 20-year-old former postman and speed freak Martin Newell was in desperate need of a new career. Glam rock seemed like a good idea...
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I must have been the only bloke in the world to have joined a rock band in order to get away from drugs. It was April 1973. Just past my 20th birthday, I sat on the floor of the roadie's flat with our drummer and toasted my first gig as the band's singer in nothing more pharmaceutical than some murky home-brew that we'd found in a cupboard.

The Mighty Plod were Colchester's answer to The Sweet ­ if The Sweet were a question. We were a glam rock band. In tight loon pants, glittery tops and stack-heeled boots, with unsupportable amounts of make-up on our faces, we looked the part. Our music was a mixture of glam covers, straight rock'n'roll and a handful of our own songs. We had a bit of a following among young girls and oddly enough, bikers. Mostly though, in an era of pop frivolity but progressive rock seriousness, the prematurely-bearded rock cognoscenti in our locality hated us.

The gig we'd just stormed was a girls' school in the south of Essex. The girls had duly screamed and surged. We spent our time between sets barricaded in an unused classroom, then drove away with the screams and guitar feedback still ringing in our ears. For an hour or two it was the closest thing I'd experienced to being in the film A Hard Day's Night. Was being in a pop group always going to turn out like this? Two nights later, after a hostile reception in a Stevenage club, where the band had almost got themselves beaten up, I was disabused of the notion. But what the hell ­ I was 20, I was in a working band, summer and probable pop stardom stretched out ahead of me. I'd come a long way.

Less than a year before, I had been in serious trouble. Overly fond of speed and acid, I'd come completely off the rails, ending up in an intensive care unit after an appalling cocktail of barley wine, downers and aspirins. I'd been beaten, then busted for dope, which had earned me the unlikely headline, "Postman 19, Carried Drug as 'Act of Chivalry'". The only thing my lawyer had mustered in my defence was that I had "...acquired some skill on the guitar". After even deeper trouble, my probation officer advised me, for my own good, to move out of the Hertfordshire town where I lived.

I don't know what my mother thought in late November 1972, when her saucer-eyed son came home to the tiny Essex coastal village with his electric guitar and a bag of flimsy glam clothes. I was bronchitic, I was underweight and I had torched a number of brain cells. I was damaged goods. My parents were long-term Army folk and we'd moved around a lot. I'd been to 11 different schools by the time I left, aged 15, with no qualifications. I don't think they quite knew what to make of this particular chicken when it came home to roost. As my dad had remarked: "Does it talk ­ or does it bark?"

When I began to recover, I'd expected them to point me in the direction of honest employment. What I didn't expect was for my mum to come at me one morning with a cutting from the paper, pointing out that a local glam rock band had just lost their singer. She thought I should get in contact with them. "You'd be good at that," she said, in her practical, Peggy Archer voice. Goaded by my dad, who told me I didn't have the bottle to do it, I tarted myself up, took a bus into Colchester and by a sheer quirk of fate, met the band concerned in a local music shop. They were, as I've said, a glam rock band. They didn't need a singer so much as an exhibitionist prat willing to put on silly clothes, women's make-up and leap around a lot. I was already there.

Within a few weeks I'd undergone a complete transformation, from introspective drug-bum obsessed with music, to working singer in a modern rock band. Such a thing couldn't happen these days, of course. Unless they've got a record to promote, career-conscious young rockers now don't go out on the road in the way that the Mighty Plod did.

We were the last of the human jukeboxes. We might find ourselves working anywhere from Sunderland to Southend. If people wanted Slade covers, they got them. If we found ourselves in some run-down dance-hall on the north Norfolk coast, and the old rockers, or the even-older Teds wanted rock'n'roll, then we played it.

My new bandmates didn't do drugs. They thought it was boring and hippyish, and they took the piss mercilessly if I ever brought the subject up. Scarcely out of our teens, we were already road veterans, used to taking all the work we were given. Even if it was only playing the soundtrack to the gladiatorial exertions of country lads knocking seven colours out of each other in some fenland village hall. We played RAF bases, where predatory middle-aged women brought in for the servicemen would thrust their hands down the front of my hipsters and... well, it was all a bit of an education for an impressionable boy.

I'd had little experience of drink up until this time, loftily pronouncing it "a low-drive drug for low-drive people". This changed when our new guitarist joined. Bachelor Johnny, who sometimes wore a mid-length Biba dress, taught me and our 17- year-old drummer how to drink successfully. In late 1973, and with more of our own material in our set, the band became more sinewy.

And, of course, our behaviour deteriorated. I helped blow out a potential record deal by insulting Dave Dee, then A&R man at Atlantic. Later, three of us managed to disrupt a national rock contest in an incident that culminated in me falling over drunk in front of Elkie Brooks, one of the judges. Our fondness for bawdiness and for spontaneous nakedness made us locally notorious.

In an era favouring Floyd, Genesis and Yes triple albums, our behaviour was more in keeping with that of a punk band. It occurred to me recently that Tony Blair, who is the same age as me, was at Oxford during this time. Everywhere, our contemporaries were laying the foundations for the future. Political careers and business empires were being incubated.

The members of the Mighty Plod, on the other hand, were travelling England's great highways, waving their whangers in the back of a transit van. A van where our favourite thing was bawling out our own drunken version of "The Dambuster's March", complete with whistling bomb noises and crackly radio announcements. And we wondered why we didn't have a record deal or ever get invited to showbiz parties.

We lasted two years. We were signed to a record label in the end, though nothing much came of it. During my time in the band, I'd grown up. Almost. An unconventional way for a pilled-up idiot to get himself off drugs, I admit. Hardly remunerative, either. But an apprenticeship opportunity that is now unavailable to young people seeking a career in music. And as we were so fond of saying at the time: "It's better than working, innit?"

Martin Newell's rock memoir 'This Little Ziggy' is published by House of Stratus, priced £7.99

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