More Cowbell
One of the guitar bands in which I was proud to play drums while at secondary school was the Diesel Powered Nuns (formerly known as the Dooberie Hounds – when we’d performed in this incarnation our bass player had Tipp-Ex-ed paw prints all over the fret board of his guitar). The name of band was suggested to or bestowed upon us (this was never clear to me) by a musical colleague in our year at King’s Manor School, Stephen Reynolds, who’d borrowed the name from a Monty Python sketch. Stephen and I had been friends since primary school, as the only two kids in the class who were seriously interested in chess and imaginary goldfish (these latter enjoyed the salubrious surroundings of their enclosure beneath Stephen’s electronic keyboard, and were called, respectively, Norman, Trevor and Socrates). We had, whilst still at primary school, established the Gareth and Stephen Tea-time Club (GSTTC), which would convene whenever our parents would allow us to visit one another after school. I forget precisely what we did, but I do remember that I was appointed the club’s official artist by my friend, and that we guarded the Club’s affairs with great secrecy and kept all proceedings in a peculiarly-configured cardboard box that one could only open with a high degree of patience. My principal recollection from the convocations of the GSTTC was the afternoon at Stephen’s home when simultaneously taught me, invented the rules for, and was resoundingly defeated at Suicide Chess. As one might suspect, the game was based on the premise that, rather than guard one’s King and use the pawns and others cunningly to defend oneself and attack the opponent, the aim was in fact to place one’s pieces in the path of certain and unavoidable death or capture. Details of precisely how I won or what were the rules of engagement have been lost in the mists of time.

Stephen Reynolds had an elder brother, Matt. As younger siblings so often do, Stephen grew up quicker than many of his peers – his sense of humour and command of the English language were both years ahead of anyone else’s in our class at school. It was Stephen who introduced me to the teenage schoolboy humour of Herbert and the Fried Spaniels, having initially passed off many of their jokes as his own before he gave me a copy of his brother’s C-90 tape of these two year-eleven boys getting drunk and being silly in front of a cassette recorder. I listened and re-listened to the tape, and to this day I recall some of the duo’s puns and gems of wisdom at the least likely and appropriate moments in mature conversation. With a brother old enough to be buying and reading publications from the contemporary music press, I think now that Stephen probably was inspired to take the name of the “Diesel Powered Nuns” from a lesser-known west-country rock outfit of the era calling themselves the Atomic Vicars. I have no proof, however of this derivation.

The Nuns were an excellent high school band, the best that King’s Manor School had to offer. I eventually lost that gig to my rival drummer, Olly, of the Adur Youth Concert Band, when (I think) I appeared to be more interested in my other rock project, the Purple Freuds. I thought at the time that a Freud was simply the pet-name for the little purple key-fob that Chris had attached to his house keys. Chris did say, when suggesting the name for the band, “you know, like Sigmund Freud”, but I did not know, and concurred enthusiastically nonetheless. It was, after all, a damn sight better and less alienating than the name I had previously bestowed up on our group – “The Sons of William Byrd” (we had listened to some Renaissance choral music at school, and I wanted to be sure that my recollection of this fact was evident in the name of the my band). Prior to the Diesel Powered Nuns’ decision that my allegiance to Chris’s band may prove too strong, and that they needed someone who would offer commitment rather than rivalry, for around 18 months I held the drum chairs in both the Diesel Powered Nuns and the Purple Freuds. I was simultaneously working my way up the ranks of the Band of the Brighton Battalion of the Boys’ Brigade – I have rarely felt such a flush of pride as when I played snare drum solos with them on Remembrance Day Parades, marching around Southwick Green.

It was during the heady days of my ménage-à-trois with Adur’s rock ‘n’ roll and marching band fraternities that Matt Walder came up with a fantastic idea. The Diesel Powered Nuns were rehearsing one afternoon at Matt’s mother’s home. Our bassist was Matt Fowler, the second guitarist was Alex Aspinall, and Alex’s brother, the lead singer (absent on this occasion), was also called Matt. The first two Matts have been playing in a band together almost ever since. After the Nuns they formed The Birdhouse Project, later becoming simply Birdhouse, one of the best and most creative rock bands I ever heard – that they never were signed to a major record label and their music marketed the world over is a great injustice. I still have a copy of their brilliant LP 16 Bit. On this particular afternoon, Matt’s mother had, out of necessity or trust, abandoned us adolescent musicians to our own devices in her home. On a tea (or it may have been orange squash) break, Matt came up with the inspired suggestion that we would dial random phone numbers beginning with the then Brighton prefix of 594 and play a song down the line to whoever picked up. The rest of us, being willing disciples of the cult of Matt, thought this was pure, unadulterated genius. First we wrote and (very briefly) rehearsed this song:

I come from West Virginia
I sow the cotton fields
I come from West Virginia
Where the Strawberries are so fresh

We performed this as a kind of a south-coast, lower-middle-class, punk-acoustic hoe-down, with every crotchet beat articulated on my newly-acquired cowbell. We called only four or five phone numbers, but I remember our elation when an old lady picked up and listened to our entire rendition. Maybe we’d made her day. Or maybe we hadn’t. After hanging up the receiver, we retired to the kitchen, where Matt manufactured two cheeseburgers for himself, and two for each of the rest of the band. What an awesome day.





One Response to “Diesel Powered Nuns”

  1. shirley smith said

    Hmmm….you kept a lot of this a secret from your parents!!!

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