Ian McMillan: When the future became present and tense

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I was very excited. You could tell I was excited because I kept clearing my throat and tugging at my left ear. It was 1971 and Oscar the Frog, the band I was the drummer in, were about to do our second gig, following the triumph of our first gig at the Darfield Church Hall jumble sale where we dazzled the buyers of second hard cardigans and Bunty annuals for 20 minutes that defined the future direction of folk-rock. Or at least that’s what we told ourselves during post-show discussions in the front room of Martyn’s mother’s bungalow. “Did you see that captain from the Church Girls’ Brigade jigging about during Matty Groves?” I said joyfully, and we all nodded in agreement. The future defined. Maybe that could be the name of our first album.

We acknowledged that our second outing would be in front of a tougher crowd. We were booked to perform two 30 minute sets at a local youth club; none of us acknowledged that we only had 20 minutes of material. I cleared my throat and tugged my ear. Maybe we could improvise something. It would be okay. The future defined.

The dad of the two brothers who played guitar and keyboard was drafted in to help us transport our equipment to the youth club, thus saving the embarrassment of getting on the bus and asking for “One and a drum kit to town, please” and as we set up the youths gathered round us, like seagulls round a discarded bag of chips in Filey. “What does tha call that?” a lad who looked to be in his late 30s asked our violin player, pointing at his fiddle. “It’s a trumpet,” the violin player replied, with heavy-handed irony. The man-youth didn’t get it. “It dun’t look like a trumpet,” he said, and went off to play snooker.

Eventually we were ready to start. I’d naively assumed that, like in Darfield Church Hall, we’d be on a stage, far from the seething mass of music-lovers. We weren’t. We were on the floor at eye-level with the audience. At least I was behind a set of drums; the rest of the lads were facing the crowd like the front row of a scrum on a muddy field in December. I was meant to start the first song by banging my sticks together four times like I’d seen drummers do on The Old Grey Whistle Test but I couldn’t. I was rigid with fear. There was a long and uncomfortable silence. The youth club leader, a chap who looked like the late Robert Robinson, tried to encourage us by shouting, in a broad Lancashire accent, “Please welcome The Oscar Frogs,” and Martyn shouted, “One, two, three, four,” and all the youths replied “five six seven eight!” The gig went from bad to worse. I kept dropping my sticks. A tall skinny kid grabbed the violin player’s fiddle and ran around pretending to shoot people with it. The elderly youth from earlier shouted, “Be careful with his trumpet!” We all looked at each other. This wasn’t, to be brutally frank, the future defined. This was the present and it was horrible. We stopped. The youths drifted away. “I think they liked you,” the Youth leader said afterwards. “You should have seen what they did to the juggler last week!”