Purple haze in Free School Lane of the Swinging Sixties

Was there ever such a line-up at Chatham Central Hall? Pink Floyd. The Move. The Nice. Amen Corner. Outer Limits. Eire Apparent. Oh yes … and Jimi Hendrix.

Those were the golden days of the former Methodist hall now known as the Central Theatre; the hippie days when teenagers really thought they were going to take over the world with flowers, long hair and good vibes.

Here is the story of Jimi’s visit to Chatham. And intriguingly, there is an odd to link to my alma mater, Sir Joseph Williamson’s Mathematical School, Rochester. Jimi Hendrix came to Chatham on 1 December, 1967. The summer of love was drawing to a close, but the Age of Aquarius was still hardly begun.

That day was significant for all Jimi fans, not just those who crowded into the Central Hall, It was the day his second album, Axis: Bold As Love was released. The first album — Are You Experienced — took the public by storm. From the first trembling vibrato of the first track, Foxy Lady, it shook pop fans, put a shiver down music-lovers spines … and scared British guitarists out of their wits.

Jimi — christened Johnny Allen by his feckless mother, renamed James Marshall by his father — had come over to England in late 1966. That July, Chas Chandler of The Animals had seen him the 23-year-old guitarist playing in Greenwich Village, New York. Chas, a bluff Geordie, stood and watched, thinking: “There must be a catch here … why has nobody signed him up yet?”

Chas asked him to come to England, where he could have his own band. In those few minutes, Chas has worked out what out a future for Jimi. Hendrix, however, wasn’t sure, so he asked Chas about the musicians he knew.

What about Eric Clapton? Sure, said Chas. I know him … and I’ll introduce you. That clinched it. Chas kept his promise and introduced him at a gig by Cream — with whom Clapton was then playing — in London.

Come on stage, said Eric, after making a deal with drummer Ginger Baker, who was not at all keen on the idea. They launched into the Howlin’ Wolf number, Killing Floor. “I’ll never forget Eric’s face,” Chas recalled. “He just walked off the stage and stood and watched.” What Clapton witnessed frightened and worried him — as it would every other guitarist.

Hendrix’s rise was instant. His first single Hey Joe got to number six in the charts and the follow-up, Purple Haze, made number three. The Are You Experienced album reached number two, kept off the top only by the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

He broke back into America at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967 and then set off on a tour supporting, bizarrely, The Monkees. The Monkees loved him. Teenybop Monkees fans didn’t really know what to make of his raunchy stage act. Monkee fans’ parents knew exactly what to make of him — and didn’t like it one bit. Hendrix, however, wanted to get a bit more involved in the music side of the business Hence the tour that brought him to Chatham.

Now for the Hendrix-Math connection. A rumour that was rife at the time has resurfaced on the web. Jimi and the rest of the Experience — bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell — had been told that the Chatham Central Hall was on the main road from London and was more accustomed to classical music concerts than electric rock. Quite true.

Passing through Rochester High Street, they heard orchestral sounds coming from a building in Free School Lane — the old Math (school song: All Hail to the Colours and Dark and Light Blue) — and wandered in, presuming they were at their venue.

The response of the Math boys — or indeed the fearsome headmaster LT Waddams — is not recorded.

Unless, of course, you know any more …? Please comment below.

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2 thoughts on “Purple haze in Free School Lane of the Swinging Sixties”

  1. Steve – I wasn’t aware that you were at the Math – just a bit after me I think.
    I was there from 1954 to 1961 and can vouch for the quantity of classical music that poured out of the building. There were the Senior Orchestra, Junior Orchestra, Junior String Orchestra and the Choir, and of course the annual Gilbert & Sullivan at the Globe Theatre (before they knocked it down). All expertly marshalled by Frank Sanderson, Alfred Howard and Gerald Bayfield. Leslie Waddams (Oscar – where did that nickname come from ?) had the excellent notion that everyone should at least try playing a musical instrument, and decreed, in defiance of the KCC rule that music tuition should be paid for as an extra “privilege”, that all pupils should get the first year free. Choice of recorder or violin, depending on your pain threshold. If you were any good you could carry on and pay for the following years. And in most years one or two excellent musicians were “discovered”.
    I had for several years previously wrangled the piano (at my mother’s whim) and finally had to admit that I was no use at it – mostly because I couldn’t sight-read. But at the suggestion of one of the existing members of the Orchestra I managed to get myself invited to become timpanist and ended up serving both the Senior and Junior Orchestras, later retitled as the First and Second. The lack of sight-reading was less of a problem as there were only two notes to worry about, but the problem then became – how to reliably count 120 bars rest …..
    All a wonderful, though slightly traumatic experience. Then I left school to go to the BBC and found my true musical level – as a recording engineer. Certainly, having worked “inside” an orchetra was valuable experience when it came to siting microphones and balancing the result.
    My eternal thanks to the above named heroes for their patience, and their influence in keeping us (me, at least) as far away from “pop” music as possible. Though later on I did find myself as sound man on the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour filming at West Malling in 1967 ….. a story for another day.
    One huge regret – I read in the Williamsonian a few years back that Gerald (Beaky) Bayfield had died. Though I didn’t know it he had been living only 5 miles from me in Norfolk. I would have loved to have seen him again 50 years on.
    And finally – anyone else remember me, and/or the others who started at the Math in 1954 or who joined later ? If so please get in touch, we have accounted for 65 of our lot already.
    Email (unless the Moderator deletes it) is dogwood@supanet.com.

  2. Allan, I was at the Math from 1957 to 1964. In my time, all in the first year had the choice of learning to play the violin, or, the recorder. Those who showed promise on the violin were encouraged to continue with the violin, or other stringed instruments. Talented recorder players progressed to orchestral wind instruments. To the best of my knowledge, no one was charged for tuition and I assume that practice must have been discontinued after 1957.

    I played the cello in the junior and senior orchestras. Mr Bayfield conducted the senior orchestra and was also my chemistry teacher in the 6th form. He was certainly passionate about his music and was widely admired as an enthusiastic conductor. He was not quite so likeable as a chemistry teacher but as I achieved a grade B in my A level, I should not be too critical.

    I believe that he was the author of the publication “Dereham’s Forgotten Scientist: William Hyde Wollaston”, published by the Dereham Antiquarian Society and still available on Amazon.

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