Above, serene Caryatids on Montpelier Walk seem to reinforce Cheltenham’s “genteel image”. But what was going on behind the scenes?
It was in a story that I commissioned for MOJO back in 1999 that Charlie Watts said of Brian Jones, the founder of his band, “‘He was a pretentious little sod. He was from Cheltenham. Does that sum it up?’
Mick, Charlie and Keith have mentioned Brian’s Cheltenham origins many times, contrasting their own “London” upbringing with his on numerous occasions. It’s a fascinating example of revisionism – because their claim is so ludicrous, as anyone who’d been to Dartford, the epitome of Suburbia, could tell you. OK, Dartford did boast one cool location, namely the Vox factory, manufacturers of the immortal AC30 amps, but otherwise the finest view in Dartford, as Sam Johnson might’ve said, was the road that led to London. And London was a long way down the road.
I first started to realise how fascinating Cheltenham was, as a place of origin, well before I’d started working on a pitch for a book on Brian, thanks to Kris Needs, who introduced elme to Robin Pike, a friend and ex-chemistry teacher of his, who’d known Brian at Cheltenham Grammar.
Robin became something of a friend, too, who’d regularly check in on progress on the book; I’ll probably run a more detailed Q&A with him later, as I will with many of my interviewees, but Robin’s first quote pretty much lays out the scene: “Everything you will read about Cheltenham, in the context of music and Brian is wrong. The biggest thing in Cheltenham, then and now, which you won’t find generally mentioned is GCHQ. When we grew up, this was the period of the cold war. GCHQ at that time had two centres of operation – some of the people there had the highest security clearance in the Western world – it was directly linked to America and was an espionage centre of the Western World.”
GCHQ was just one aspect of Cheltenham’s unique, secretive history: the other part was the Gloster Aircraft Company, which made Britain’s earliest jet prototypes – in a building on the high street, not far from the Victorian Grammar School building. It was Cheltenham’s status as a high-tech centre which brought Brian’s father, Lewis to the city. Lewis, it would turn out, would be a highly respected engineer in the aerospace industry.
Brian’s friend Graham Ride made a similar observation, of how people describe Cheltenham as a quiet, genteel location, then mention the long list of cutting edge concerts in the town, and don’t grasp any contradiction. In Sympathy For The Devil, I uncover new bands that Brian played in, new venues and partnerships, and uncover how Brian had played unique, pioneering electric slide guitar in and around the city, and had notched up over 100 gigs before he ever made his way to London. Brian was playing electric slide guitar in public, before any white American player, at a time when Mick and Keith were playing only in their families’ front rooms.
There was part of Cheltenham that was genteel and stifling, a Cheltenham against which the young Brian Jones rebelled. Yet Cheltenham was also a centre for prostitution, for gambling, and even for the anti-nuclear movement, CND. It was all these factors that helped Brian become, as Alexis Korner’s wife Bobbie remembers, “a remarkable young man.”
Robin Pike: ” “Everything you will read about Cheltenham, in the context of music and Brian is wrong.”
Brian’s friends Pip Price and John Keen, who took me on a tour of his old haunts – a story for another day.