On the night of November 30th 1966 occurred an event which was to change Michael’s life forever. He had spent some hours that evening in a pub called The Ship, in Wardour Street, which was then one of several Soho pubs frequented by the music business; but he had left after an impassioned argument with music manager Tony Stratton-Smith.
Feeling rather disturbed by this argument (of which maybe more another time), he took a train to Finchley Road, where he visited some friends; then, realizing he had missed the last bus home, he hitched a lift which took him as far as Mill Hill, from where he intended to walk the rest of the way. Always as much a poet as a musician, Michael used to enjoy rambling around the deserted streets of suburban areas of London at night, finding inspiration there – and, with much on his mind after the events of earlier that evening, as he slowly made his way homeward, he wandered up a narrow tree-lined turning, deep in thought and talking to himself. When he re-emerged a few minutes later, he was suddenly grabbed from behind and thrown to the ground by a person who turned out to be a police officer, claiming to have seen him attempting to burgle a house!
To cut a long story short, he was taken to a police station where, despite his denials, he was charged with “being a suspected person, found loitering with intent to commit a felony” (the notorious, and now repealed, “Sus” law), and subsequently found guilty of this offence in the local magistrates court and fined accordingly.
But Michael was a person who wanted to believe in society and its institutions, rather than engage in slick cynicism, and against the advice of many who told him to just forget about it and get on with his life, he set out to appeal. The enforced activity of applying before a High Court judge for legal aid, finding a barrister and solicitor to represent him, and preparing his case for the appeal, acted as a kind of therapy which enabled him to keep his sanity; and, as the newspaper cutting shows, the appeal was successful, even if Mike was not so happy to be warned by the Judge (Mr Richard Vick) that for his own good he should not in future go out wandering late at night….
Fortunately for us he took little notice of this warning, and some of his best songs have come from the times when he would hang around in empty night-time or early morning streets. But the whole episode, occurring when he was in his early 20’s, had a huge effect on his later life.
And as a final riposte, Mike composed the poem below – one of some 80 different broadsheets of his, that he and I, working together, would print multiple copies of, and sell on the streets of London and many other towns and cities around the UK, in the 1970’s.
Walking out in the early morning from the tiny, terraced house in Leuven which we had made our base on the continent – it being some time in the early 1980’s, and the day being Tuesday, our day for traveling to Aachen (just over the border in Germany) – we were happy simply to be alive, and following our chosen occupation.
It was a short walk from our street to the railway station – we would probably have had a coffee as usual in the Café Oud Leuven on the way, bought international tickets in the station, and had a joke with our friends in the ticket office to pass the time, since we were usually early for the train.
On our way out to the platforms on this occasion, we noticed that Padé was also at the ticket office, asking in a loud voice for a ticket to Tienen (although he called it Tierlemont- the French name). Padé was a Belgian gypsy. So far as we knew, he lived with his family in a caravan, somewhere on the edge of town. He supported his family by busking round Belgium, rather as we did, only we did not have a family. We ran into him – or perhaps I should say he ran into us – the very first day we showed up in Leuven. We were having a drink in the student café known as Alma 1, on the main road which led from the station into the centre, when in walked a remarkable-looking personage with a guitar, about as dishevelled as we were, with black hair, heavily lined, swarthy face, and a thick moustache. He started immediately to play the guitar in a distinctive rhythmic manner for a minute or so, before hurrying round the tables to make his collection.
We found out later that he was well-known in Leuven, in fact people would say that you knew summer had arrived when you saw Padé! Despite the affection people had for him though, it seemed he was not accepted as a proper musician – but I always thought that he had a perfectly natural and expressive way of making his guitar sound, and in addition he was completely professional in his relationship with the audience, no matter how informal the situation. Unfortunately, it was extremely difficult – in fact almost impossible – to get into conversation with him.
Anyway, our train came in, and Padé got on the same train, because Tienen lay in the same direction from Leuven as did the German border. We saw Padé head straight for the buffet car and order a glass of Loburg, in French, again in a loud voice – and once again I experienced a fleeting sense of admiration for his style! Although we weren’t stopping off at Tienen ourselves that day, it was in fact a town where we frequently did play, though normally on Sundays. There was an interesting collection of cafés and restaurants that we used to sing in, in the evening, but our real joy on the visit would come from sitting through the Sunday afternoon in the strangely atmospheric railway station ticket hall, waiting as it gradually filled up every half hour with people making the journey into Brussels; then ten minutes or so before the train was due, we would give a performance of one or two old country-blues numbers and make a collection, winding up just as the carriages chugged in alongside platform 1. They were magical moments that never failed. We sometimes thought we saw the station master watching us through his little window, but he didn’t say a word.
The train proceeded eastwards from Tienen; through Landen, where a disused train car standing near the station had been converted into a quaint little restaurant, and on to the city of Liège, where we would often have to change trains. Liège was our Friday pitch. That is to say, we would sit the whole of Friday afternoon in the station cafeteria with our instruments at the ready, every now and then playing a few songs suitable to the party atmosphere that usually prevailed, and making a collection. The waiters generally liked it, in fact on one occasion one of them did an impromptu dance on an empty table; it was the toilet attendants who disapproved, finding us – I think – a bit too cavalier on occasions when we surreptitiously unplugged the juke-box to enable the customers to hear our performance!
And so past Verviers, where sits the Cour de Cassation – the highest court in the Belgian legal system – then through the northernmost fringes of the beautiful Forest of Arden, past the border town of Welkenraedt, and on to the German border itself – which, for those entering by train, is situated in Aachen Station.
Now this could go quite smoothly, or it could go wildly wrong. It just depended on your luck on any particular day. In any event you would have your passport checked, and always our names would be spelled out into a border guard’s walkie-talkie: “Heinrich – Emil – Ludwig – Martha; Kaufmann – Anton – Ypsilon” (that’s our surnames, Helm and Kay, in German police language). But on a bad day there would be a reception committee waiting on the platform of Aachen Hauptbahnhof, we would be marched along to the police office, and ordered to strip off all our clothes…. So, despite the fact that Aachen – when you actually got there – was a most attractive, surprisingly bohemian city, the problems we had entering Germany at that border do mean that this otherwise fascinating train journey is unlikely to take first place in our eventual rankings; although, in fairness, it should be conceded that the Aachen border was not the only one to offer this unconventional type of welcome – our strip-tease act was quite well-known all over the continent, and closer to home in Britain, too.
(Since the implementation of the Schengen agreement in 1995, you can now sail through Aachen station without so much as an “Ausweis bitte!” to disturb your day; although Covid restrictions, in these strange times, can still lead to the temporary re-introduction of border controls.)
So You Think You Can Make It to the Station Alone?
And so to some music. This song – I think of it as a wiser Bongo Mike addressing his impatient younger self – was recorded acoustically, and released as the ‘B’ Side of the first single from our own label, Newspaper Records.
There we were, busking outside “The London Experience” in Coventry Street, London’s West End, with our friend David Benn on the tin-whistle (or flageolet as it is sometimes called). The year was 1978, and we were finding out what it was like to be hunted criminals, regularly hauled up in court for “obstructing the free passage along the highway”. Two songs that were to become permanent fixtures in our repertoire were composed on this very spot: “It’s a Crime to Play Music in the Streets” and “I am the Professor of the University of the Street”.
Our acoustic performance of “Professor” became the mainstay of our busking act on the continent, during what we called our exile period; but back in London ten years later, we recorded an electric version of the song, which we decided to make into a vinyl single. We called our electric act “Disco Justice” (more on that name another time), and released the record of “Professor” b/w “Away from Tube Trains” on our own independent label, Newspaper Records.
It so happened we’d used some pictures of Skopje – a town in Yugoslavia we often used to visit in those days – for the artwork of the single. We took along some copies next time we went down there, and our friend Vladimir Mandecevski – who owned a record shop in Skopje called Bagi Shop – started playing it on his program on the local Studentsko Radio. It became quite popular with local kids who were enthusiastic listeners to Indie music from the UK and USA.
Vladimir was known to everybody in Skopje as Mande. As well as playing our record quite a lot, Mande would interview us when we were there, and used to say nice things about us…….which was always welcome, considering how much we were up against things at home.
The song lasts an epic 5 mins 20 secs, featuring towards the end a surprise verdict and punishment meted out by the Magistrate.
It must have been Mike (Bongo Mike, my former busking partner, now sadly deceased) who first coined the term “Situation Art”.
It was at a time when we were living mostly on the continent, busking gypsy-style from cafe to cafe in the winter, and from terrace to terrace in the summer. In Britain in those days near enough any form of busking was against the law – though of course that didn’t mean that you couldn’t get away with it, it just meant that you were looking over your shoulder the whole time, or employing someone else to be a look-out, so that you knew when the police were coming. This way of life was apparently tolerable to some, but Mike and I – being perhaps travelers by nature – preferred the inconveniences of a nomadic existence abroad to the unpleasantness of regular visits to Police stations and Magistrates Courts in our home country.
We were based for some years in a Belgian town called Leuven, best-known in some circles for its old University, and in others for the Stella Artois brewery. Sitting one day in a student cafe on the Tiensestraat, Mike suddenly announced, in a loud voice which he would use when he wanted others besides just me to hear, “What we are doing is Situation Art”.
This was, I believe, the starting point of a journey that would last until we could busk no more, because of ill-health.