High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, England, United Kingdom
- Roger Newell
Rainbow Ffolly, an psychedelic art-rock band, evolved in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, in the 1960's from a group called Force Four. Jonathan Dunsterville picked the new name to conjure up the eye-searing colours associated with psychedelia, doubling the 'f' on Ffolly in tribute to Wally Ffolks, jazz clarinettist and creator of the 'Flook' cartoon strip.
Roger Newell and Stewart Osborn were neighbours who had known each other since the age of three. Later in life they both took up the guitar, but according to Roger: "We found there were loads of guitarists better than us, but few bass players and few drummers."
Roger shrewdly moved to playing bass and Stewart, to drums. In book-binding classes at college, John became intrigued by Stewart's habit of carrying sticks in his pockets and drumming on the desk when he got bored.
"This bloke in evening class going 'chika chika chika bash bash bash!'… (had) to be an interesting character," John realised. "He could play trills and things that no other drummer could do at the time, so I thought, 'that'll do'!"
John and his brother, Richard, came from a musical family, John's guitar skills stemming from finding a ukulele in the loft at the age of eleven. The brothers honed their talents by copying Elvis and the Everlys. When John first considered Roger for the band, he rejected him because he "only looked about thirteen" and was dwarfed by his guitar. Alan Thomas subsequently became Force Four's bassist, leaving after a year or so because he was not in tune with the others' art school ideas. By this time, Roger, whom John describes as "a perfect bass player," had "doubled in size" and finally passed the audition.
Roger recalls seeing John entertaining a group of people in the local park, and thinking:
"'Wow! He plays Scotty Moore stuff!' And (John) 'picked', which was not a style currently in vogue."
Group manager, John Sparrowhawk's claim to fame was that he was the vocalist on the 'Light up a Richmond' cigarette commercial, fondly remembered by Sixties pirate radio aficionados.
In 1967, having carefully selected five self-penned numbers to comprise a demo tape illustrating versatility, the Ffolly booked recording time at the Jackson brothers' Rickmansworth studio. Liking what they heard, the Jacksons challenged the group with the tall order of coming up with another seven tracks within two weeks. John, possessing an incredible talent for writing to order, not only amazed them by meeting the deadline, but exceeded the number of songs required. "I didn't craft the songs," he remembers. "I spent no time on (them) whatsoever. They just happened."
(Picture: Ffolly plus brolly. Any resemblance to any other Ffab Four, is purely coincidental)
The recording of the material took some months, with the Ffolly availing themselves of every possible moment of studio 'downtime'. Creative juices in full flow, they experimented with manufacturing new sounds. Ideas included John wrapping paper around the strings of the piano, and also placing a Neumann microphone wrapped in a polythene bag under the carpet and "jumping up and down to try and get a particular stamping noise." For the track Go Girl, John created a primitive phasing effect by singing into a hairdryer hose while twirling it around his head to the accompaniment of everyone else's hysterics!
"We had all sorts of ideas, some of which people are doing now," says John.
(We doubt if any of them involve hairdryers, though – Ed)
The Jacksons, sons of veteran broadcaster Jack, also devoted their spare time to the project. Possibly influenced by their father's innovative radio shows, they chose the concept of linking all thirteen tracks with jingles and sound effects, to form a complete 'sound package'. What they did not explain to the group was their intention of offering EMI this package as an album. News that their collection of tracks was to be issued as an LP on the Parlophone label, astonished the Ffolly. Becoming (they believe) the first group to have an album released before a single – and a completely self-penned album, to boot – should have been the greatest honour of their lives. In reality, the event evoked mixed feelings. This album could never represent what the Ffolly wanted – a cohesive sound.
Had the band realised what the Jacksons had in mind for their 'sound package', they would have opted to do everything about the recording differently. The Rainbow Ffolly saw their first album as an unfinished 'painting-by-numbers' rather than the completed masterpiece for which they would have aimed.
"I'd never even heard the words 'artistic control,'" admits John.
"We were green," agrees Roger.
John arrived at the group reunion to discuss the reissue of Sallies Fforth, clutching a seven-inch acetate and his now slightly-faded artwork for the front cover of the album. The piece for the back, is unfortunately, missing. The acetate bore no identification other than the words written on its label, years earlier, by his kids: 'One of Dad's old records.' It proved to be a take of Drive My Car. The Ffolly had thought it would be amusing to select a Beatles title and write something completely new around it, and the song was subsequently chosen as the group's first single. Mint copies of this piece of vinyl are now valued at £30. It would be difficult to speculate on the value of the artwork.
At this first get-together for many years, only rhythm guitarist, Richard, who now mines gold in Nevada, was missing. Despite the thirty-year gap between the two issues of the album, there remains a reluctance on the ex-band members' part to associate themselves with it. Their names can be found in 'Who's Who in Rock Music', but they are reticent to discuss their post-Ffolly musical careers. Although pleased to 'come out of the closet' to set the record straight about the true story behind Rainbow Ffolly Sallies Fforth, they feel that what they do now has no relevance to what they did then.
Having been allowed little input regarding their album's musical content, the Ffolly were determined to create striking sleeve artwork, somewhat reflective of their wild stage act. "The best thing about Ffolly," says Roger, "Was that it was entertaining and amusing. We were one of the earliest theatrical bands and entertainment was very high on the agenda. We took our music seriously but we were eager to take the mickey out of ourselves. We were of one mind on that."
In this era, Wycombe College was making waves on the fashion front, one famous graduate being Zandra Rhodes. John's wife, Jane, very much the Ffiffth Ffolly, was the costumier for the Ffolly ffrippery. Influenced by the exciting new fashion scene, she created vividly-coloured costumes, enhanced with feathers and light-reflecting spangles.
The Ffolly proudly recall their innovative stage show as being second-to-none, even though the costumes, stage props and dazzling effects were all home-made. The lighting unit was a wooden box covered with silver paper inside, and a 'strobe', in the form of a 200w lightbulb set behind a revolving disc with a hole, was utilised until it caught fire. John describes the Ffolly's gimmickry as "A bit like Sgt. Pepper, but before that". Eight-by-four hardwood screens were set in front of the speaker stacks. On them were depicted flame-spurting dragons painted in fluorescent colours. Behind the drum-kit an old mike-stand supported a cardboard carpet tube topped by a giant wooden lollipop – the Ffolly-pop, naturally – bearing the band's name. Sometimes the performance was enhanced by kettles, timed to boil and whistle at an appropriate moment, prompting the band to stop and make tea. Richard and John frequently bounced their guitars across the stage like pogo sticks. After one gig they discovered the impact had neatly removed small squares of lino from the village hall's new flooring!
For their extraordinary finale, the guitarists would throw down their instruments, leaving them howling. To the accompaniment of stage smoke, UV lighting and flashing strobe, Roger and John would lift the lightweight painted screens high, bringing them down slowly towards the audience. With the 'dragons' appearing on the point of attack, John Sparrowhawk would pull the plug, leaving instant darkness, silence and an audience of bemused, but well-entertained kids.
Although totally unfounded, the usual assumption was that this kind of psychedelic happening could not be achieved without the aid of mind-expanding substances. One night at London's trendy Flamingo Club, a guy asked John, "What are you on, man?" John gave his standard answer to this oft-asked question. "Smarties," he replied seriously, helpfully going on to describe the multi-coloured sweeties to his enthralled listener – whom he later discovered to have been a police plant.
The perfect Ffolly touring bus was discovered in the form of an old ambulance. The band's act being a wind-up at the expense of acid-ridden psychedelia, Roger and his Dad manufactured an elaborate wooden key for the vehicle's roof, which was to become the Ffolly's trademark. The 'clockwork' ambulance, sporting spiral-painted hubcaps which gave the illusion of the wheels running backwards, was a great focus of attention. Unfortunately, during the Ffolly's first professional residency at the Playboy Club, someone ripped the key off the roof, leaving a hole. The replacement John and Richard made was bolted down so well as to make it impossible to nick. The Ffolly ffeel the thirtieth anniversary of the Sallies Fforth album would be an appropriate time for the ffieving 'ffan' to come clean, and return the original key.
For a photo session trip to EMI in London's Manchester Square, Jane created paintings of the band's faces, placing them in the windows of the ambulance as if real people were looking out. Thanks to the vehicle's tinted glass, the band could enjoy passers-by's reactions without being seen. In Manchester Square, office workers in surrounding buildings flocked to the windows to laugh at the sight of these four young rainbow-clad guys, which was exactly the Ffolly's intention. A passing George Harrison approved their multi-hued gear with a complimentary, "Oh, nice one!" Could this chance encounter have sowed an inspirational seed of an idea for a set of colourful military costumes…?
(Picture: Psyerious Psychedelia? It's all a massive wind-up!)
While still holding-down day jobs, the guys spent all their free time together. When not gigging, they would either be constructing cardboard-and-string innovations for the act, or trying out new musical ideas. The Ffolly were not only adept at self-composing, but quick to learn other people's songs, at one time having a 300-number repertoire. Regularly performing four forty-five minute spots a night, they spread the vocals between the four of them rather than expecting one person to carry all the leads. In tune with each other mentally as well as musically, unique harmonies developed.
Roger: "Sometimes we sang three-part harmony; sometimes Stewart joined in. He had a nice soft voice which gave a lot of warmth to the songs."
Stewart: "That's because I didn't have a microphone and nobody could hear me!"
John and Jane manufactured a life-size cardboard cut-out to represent the ailing Richard at one particular West Country venue. The manager only booked 4-piece bands – considering anything less to be poor value for money. The Ffolly knew that if they arrived minus Richard, they would not get paid. The on-stage presence of a cardboard imposter dressed in Richard's yellow dressing gown and brown slippers went unnoticed. When only three people went to collect their money, the manager probably thought the forth band member had gone to fetch the van.
John's artwork for the Sallies Fforth sleeve encapsulated the humour, colour and eccentricity of a Ffolly performance. Jane drew the girl's face in the middle of the paddlewheel which became the focus of the piece. The band appreciated cartoons, so John assembled a collection of fun images into what he describes as "a glorified doodle." Roger was prompted to query what might be going on behind the mystery girl, giving rise to the idea of matching the back bit-by-bit to the front, to offer people a humorous 'look behind the psychedelic scene'.
John was unimpressed by EMI's marketing department. "EMI had no angle on us – didn't know what to do with us."
Irritated by pointless questions of the 'name your best subject at school' ilk, John refused to allow his artwork to be spoilt by acres of meaningless sleevenotes. He incorporated jokes and references to the songs into his drawing, keeping words to a minimum. The fact that the band retained control over the presentation of the sleeve meant that, "We were happier with the album cover than the contents."
Storm Thorgerson's book 'Classic Album Covers of the 60s' (Paper Tiger 1989), totally misses the point of the album artwork, dismissively consigning the sleeve to the 'Psychedelic Tack' chapter, and listing the artist as 'unknown'. First, the author mis-names the group as 'Random Ffolly' then rants on about the dreadful artwork. Thorgerson obviously never had the opportunity of seeing the design for the back of the Sallies Fforth sleeve, or he would surely have realised that the front, like the Ffolly's stage-act, was a psychedelic psyss-take. The back and front are integral to each other; the back successfully debunking any high-blown concept of cosmic mysticism by depicting the plethora of silly activities going on behind the scene. Not only that, but the artist categorised by Thorgerson as 'unknown' is clearly credited in the sentence 'Sleeve design by Jonathan Dunsterville'.
Not everyone was as dismissive as Thorgerson. John answered the phone one day to hear an excited friend gasp, "Quick! Turn on the telly! Your album cover's on the Eamonn Andrews Show!" The programme was running a feature on what had been deemed the five best sleeve designs of the year. Despite the fact that John's was the clear favourite with the studio audience, it was the cover of the Nice's Ars Longa Vita Brevis that ultimately triumphed. No-one understands why.
(Picture: John with his sleeve artwork. Which of them has worn best?)
At a local gig, the Ffolly supported the Moody Blues, who had just acquired members Lodge and Hayward. "We wiped the floor with them," remembers Roger, grinning. Four months later, both bands played Reading University. The Moodies, having changed their act completely, were performing Days of Future Passed, and now "they were superb." The Moodies confided in John Sparrowhawk that their first disastrous Ffolly encounter had made them look complete fools. It was a case of 'That other band was so much better than us. What are we going to do about it?' Subsequently, they came up with the idea of using a Mellotron to incorporate orchestral sounds into their music.
"The change of direction was completely down to that first gig with us," says Roger.
The Who's Sell Out album, its tracks linked by Radio London jingles, was recorded after Sallies Fforth. However, Sell Out was finished, mixed and out before the Ffolly's LP, thus reducing the innovative impact of the jingle-type links on Sallies Fforth.
Keith Skues, Radio One's 1968 Saturday Club host, was visiting Knotty Green for a cricket match, when accosted by a strange, rainbow-clad ensemble, who thrust a copy of Sallies Fforth into his hand. Two weeks later, Keith not only made the LP Saturday Club Record of the Week, but also treated his audience to over seventeen minutes of it – presumably most of the needle time allotted to the show.
At a time when they were performing around twenty-two gigs a month, the Ffolly recorded two BBC sessions at the Paris Studios. During the sound-level run-through, they played five or six songs straight off in one take. "The engineers were amazed, as it had never happened before, but that's how tight the band was," recalls Stewart. Recognising the Ffolly's professionalism, "(The engineers) just set the recording level and went off and left the band to get on with it." The session tapes are believed to still exist somewhere in the bowels of the Beeb.
The Ffolly recorded some tracks especially for the then recently-launched Wycombe Hospital Broadcasting Association. Unsure whether the station call-sign was Wycombe Radio or Radio Wycombe, the band had tremendous fun at Stewart's house, making customised jingles to cover both possibilities. Unfortunately, their hilarious transformation of Louis Armstrong's song into What A Wonderful Ward was at the time deemed unsuitable for transmission to patients of a delicate disposition, owing to its reference to bedpans! Copies of the tape, including covers of Lucy in the Sky and I Can't Let Maggie Go, still exist.
Tony Macaulay realised the band's potential, wanting them to record his song Love Grows (Where my Rosemary Goes). EMI's attitude was that if Macaulay wanted the Ffolly, they wanted the Ffolly more. The company refused to release them from contractual obligations to make the recording. Only the Ffolly lost out. Tony's own Edison Lighthouse recording of the song hit number one on both sides of the Atlantic.
The Ffab Ffour duly completed a rites-of-passage, four-sets-a-night residency at Hamburg's Star Club, complete with accommodation at a local knocking shop. Somebody had written 'I wanna go home, Mum,' on the club wall, a sentiment endorsed by a lengthy list of signatures underneath. Sadly, the Ffolly's early departure homewards was due to lack of money.
Of Sallies Fforth, John says, "I only made enough out of it for a large meal for my family."
Ironically, he would probably have raised more cash by selling his own copy to a collector.
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