The Flamingo Club

One warm spring Friday night in 1964, cooling off between sets outside the Ricky Tick club in Windsor, I share a match flame with a sharp-suited mod whose jaw works in perfect time with the record wafting from the upstairs room. He chimneys a lungful skywards and asks have I seen Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames? I haven’t. He says they’re the best band around by far and that they’re on at the Flamingo – “up west”, indicated with a head tilt towards London – every Saturday night. I thank him for the tip-off, but figure if a group’s that good, they’ll turn up at the Ricky Tick before long. Although I don’t see him the following week, the Friday after he wants to know what I reckon. When I tell him I haven’t seen them yet, he exhales a smoky sigh and walks away.

Saturday nights soon take on a new pattern. Dex and I still rendezvous in the Antelope, but we leave before closing time and aim my Ford Pop east along the A40, watching house lights go out in the cosy commuter country of Beaconsfield and Gerrards Cross, the suburban estates of Greenford and Perivale, built when being handy for Western Avenue’s sclerotic arterial was a selling point, and the Lego-like semis of Acton, as yet unspoiled by stone-cladding and secondary glazing. We stop off at the bowling alley by Gipsy Corner for as long as it takes to rinse down half a dozen doobs with a waxed-paper cup of coke, and by the time the car is parked in W1, in a space vacated by the straights and squares who’ve already headed home after their idea of a night-out, the amphetamine magic is working, and we are doing our mod swagger down Wardour Street, hoping the Marquee-ites, homeward bound themselves, will notice our dark, dilated pupils, the urgent way we chew our gum, and our walk – oh yes, a walk so cool it ought to be a dance.

At most clubs where R&B groups play, back rooms of pubs, like the Ricky Tick, with a bar in one corner and a makeshift stage, the audience is art-studenty, the scruffy side of smart, with Stones-length hair or longer. The Flamingo, a firetrap of a basement south of Shaftesbury Avenue, attracts an altogether different crowd. Because the All-Nighter operates from midnight to six, they come from a netherworld where people don’t keep regular hours: US servicemen from Mildenhall and Lakenheath on 48-hour passes, determined not to waste pay on a hotel room or precious leave asleep, young West Indians from Notting Hill and Brixton, insomniac musicians, drunks, junkies, hookers, and drynamil-fuelled faces. Mods will be misremembered as the pansy prey of rockers, but the mods-versus-rockers match-up is essentially a media invention, and the notion that a dedicated dress sense is a disqualification from violence a dangerous misconception.

Like the Marquee up the road, the Flamingo was a jazz club originally, modern jazz though, unlike the Marquee’s trad. An illuminated sign assures punters who are unimpressed by the nondescript entrance between a Chinese restaurant and a shoe shop that, “Here is the internationally famous Flamingo Jazz Club.” An arrow points at the doorway leading to a flight of stairs. A second sign, on which a pink flamingo is depicted cartoonishly, boasts that the place is “Britain’s Finest Modern Jazz Venue”. Only on a third sign, smaller than the other two and unlit, are the words ‘Allnighter’ and ‘Rhythm & Blues’ printed. But it’s the word ‘Jazz’ – in jazzy lettering, naturally – that I have fixed on to legitimise my Saturday nights. That and the fact that Dex happens to have a barrister uncle in Belgravia. Even though my old man is less bothered about me spending an evening in sinful Soho than that I’ll be having my ear bent by the modern jazz he abhors, my mother is relieved that I’m avoiding a late drive home by staying over in SW1. If only.

Outside the Flamingo, the audience from the evening session, over at eleven, has gone. Everyone waiting now is here for the midnight hour. The white-knuckle ride of a rush from the pills has smoothed into a surge of euphoria so intensely exhilarating it nearly takes my breath away. Inevitably I turn to Dex and whisper hoarsely how fantastic I’m feeling.

Inside, the lights are dim, and the heat, under the false ceiling, ferocious. Tony Clarke’s ‘Ain’t Love Good, Ain’t Love Proud’ comes over the PA, or James Brown’s ‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag’, which I hear for the first time queuing on the stairs to the basement, and inevitably before the night is over, since it is a favourite of John Gunnell’s, Lord Kitchener’s priapic ‘Dr Kitch’. Gunnell, who runs the club with his older brother Rik, introduces the acts and, between the sets, plays records from the band room beside the stage, spicing his MC’s patter with a crude parody of Jamaican patois, which nevertheless amuses, rather than offends the West Indians in the audience. There are always two bands on, each playing two alternate sets, with Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band or Chris Farlowe and the Thunderbirds or Ronnie Jones and the Nightimers opening, and Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames closing the session.

The Blue Flames were once Billy Fury’s backing group, and it was Fury’s manager, Larry Parnes, begetter of Tommy Steele, Marty Wilde, Vince Eager, et al, who changed their pianist’s name from Clive Powell to Georgie Fame. But since the start of their Flamingo residency in 1962, Fame and the Blue Flames have undergone an extraordinary evolutionary process. Other bands have likewise added horns and replaced piano with Hammond organ, but what is unique about the way their music has developed is the input of the Flamingo’s audience.

Much of the band’s material has come from the GIs who frequent the All-Nighter. Keen to replicate the music they would be dancing and drinking to back home – were they not guarding us from the red menace that lurks behind the Iron Curtain – and gratefully aware that Fame and his fellow musicians are not only capable of meaningful interpretation, but enthusiastically open to influence, they lend him their own records. If Fame likes what he hears, the song will be in the band’s set the following weekend, just like James Brown’s ‘Night Train’, Rufus Thomas’s ‘The Dog’, the Phil Upchurch Combo’ ‘You Can’t Sit Down’, even Paul Anka’s ‘Eso Beso’. And, of course, it’s a GI who has introduced him to maverick jazzer Mose Allison, reshaping his singing style overnight. The album that hooked him is I Love The Life I Live, its title track now a staple in the Blue Flames’ set, along with Allison’s ‘Parchman Farm’ and ‘Work Song’.

Even when I search out Allison’s originals, I don’t like Fame’s approximation any less. Plus I am now a sucker for Hammond organs and horn sections, and there isn’t one number in the Blue Flames’ repertoire I don’t think is great. The Rolling Stones may have been lost from the Ricky Tick to the wider world of pop, but I don’t care any more, because Georgie and the Blue Flames make the most exciting music in town. The All-nighter is unmissable.

From midnight to six we dance and fidget and talk nonsense, start to feel not so great, swallow more pills and feel great again, and suddenly we’re outside in the cold, cold light. Those six hours can flash by so fast, I once ask on my way out why the bands haven’t done two sets tonight. “What’re you on, son? Here, you sure you’re old enough to be in this joint?” I wasn’t.

We have a wash at Charing Cross station, a coffee in the Strand, occasionally shop for bluebeat records at a stall in Petticoat Lane, anything to put off the return to the real world and the inevitable come-down. Some hardcore Flamingo fans even go back for more. There’s a Sunday afternoon session, where John Gunnell, easing his way through the day with a bottle of Scotch, heckles the bands he’s booked. In theory, and in amphetamine-powered defiance of fatigue, you can attend six sessions between Friday and Sunday.

For out-of-towners, like Dex and me, whose alibi of the bed in Belgravia means there’s no hurry to get back to High Wycombe, the morning-after usually begins with a time-killing detour via the 24-hour Heathrow Bowl on the A4 until it’s late enough to be starting a normal Sunday. Except by now my jaw aches, my eyes sting, my synuses burn, my feet throb, my throat is raw, my stomach convulsed, and my penis shrunk so small I struggle to pull it from my pants for the dribble of dark urine which is as much as I can summon. On my tongue there’s a permanent ball of spit, which taints everything I taste. Not that I have an appetite.

We can’t go to anyone’s house unless they’re in on our secret and their parents, who would think us ill, are out, so we usually wind up in the one coffee bar in the entire town that is open on a Sunday afternoon. It becomes such a regular sanctuary that I start taking one of the waitresses home after her shift. A fumble in my car, parked at the end of her drive, momentarily reverses the day’s downward spiral.

Bottoming out of my come-down at school on Monday, I meet Dex by the tuck shop and swear I’m never going to the All-Nighter again. I’m still adamant on Tuesday, but by Wednesday we’re singing snatches of that new number that went down a storm. What was it called? ‘Yeh Yeh’? Georgie and the band ought to record that. Who knows, it could be a hit. On Thursday we scan the Flamingo’s weekly ad in Melody Maker to see who the other group’s going to be. Friday I hand Dex the money for my doobs. I can’t wait for Saturday night. I love the Flamingo, right until the weekend before I leave for university, when I realise what a dangerous place it is for a middle-class boy masquerading as a mod.

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