Mastermind Again – and the Stones, John The Revelator at Chess Studios and Me.

First, how did I get on Mastermind on successive series, when there is normally a requirement to wait for two years? The answer is that only the six highest-scoring losers in each series go through to the semi-finals, and last year I was the seventh-highest scoring loser. (In fact, I was slap in the middle of semi-finalist scores, having amassed more than a lot of heat winners, but the rules are the rules…)

So I was stand-by in the 2013-14 semis, and as compensation for that, I got an audition-free place this year.

And how did I come to the Rolling Stones as a subject?

When you apply to Mastermind, you are required to offer four options. Last year, my first choice – the life and works of (another Pompey boy) Christopher Hitchens – was rejected on the grounds that a no set of questions could be assembled which was both verifiable and comprehensive enough. So I went with the history of Portsmouth FC, with my third choice – the Stones – as semi-final option. Which in turn became my first round option in 2104.

My choice of the Stones was based on three factors.

First, an interest which started at the age of 10, when on our two weeks holiday in Cornwall in 1965, the transistor radio and the Light Programme blasted out the wall of noise which was Not Fade Away. I was intrigued. In a pop world where the Beatles were near-omnipotent, my older brother Alan had already declared for the Stones, and my first hearing confirmed that this was indeed a force to be reckoned with.

Secondly, this all started at that age when our minds are like sponges. Between the ages of 10 and 15, we can remember incidents, facts and conversations like they were yesterday – in fact better than my 60 year old memory can recall yesterday. So facts useful for Mastermind should have a core learnt in those years.

Again, from Alan’s collection of 45s, I can recall the mystery and wonder of silver lettering on blue Decca labels: “Willy Dixon,” “B & S Womack,” “Andrew Loog Oldham.” And the news stories: pep pills and grass busts, paternity suits, Marianne, the band in court. And later, word from the cool guys at school who knew about Muddy Waters’ Rollin’ Stone Blues and that Brian played a “bottleneck” on Little Red Rooster.

Thirdly, I owe the Stones a huge debt. Keith Richards has described their early objectives as being a band possessed by a missionary zeal to keep alive the blues roots of rock and roll: with Buddy Holly dead, Elvis in the US Army and Chuck Berry in jail, two ill-matched kids from Dartford plus The Cheltenham Shagger were the contrarian antidote to showbiz blandness. When their varied talents were welded into a tight groove by the kick-arse metronome rhythm section of a dependable wedding band bassist and London’s top young jazz drummer, they became unstoppable.

Unstoppable, that is, in their zeal to bring to London and its suburbs the indefinable and unique sound and spirit of electric rhythm and blues. This time holds a particular fascination for me: the crowded and raucous nights at Crawdaddy at the Station Hotel, Richmond, the gigs for a dozen people, and the residencies at the 100 Club and Eel Pie Island. (I knew the island from my early childhood: my father Reg worked there building lifeboats in the late 40s and 50s. He took me there when we picked up my mother from work at Poppie’s factory in Twickenham on Fridays.) My elder cousins might have known about the Crawdaddy Club – maybe they turned down chances to go there.

Flash forward 50 years. I am  – amazingly – walking in the hot sunshine down South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois. Past Tony Jones’s Art Institute and Soldier Field on my left. Further and further down, with the people on the sidewalks thinning out, and African Americans becoming the majority. It is a longer way down to the South Side to 2120 South Michigan than I thought.

And when I get there, what does the Chess Studio look like? A small building, two shopfronts, and unadorned. A bell with “For Attention, Please Press” written on it. I check the address again, and press. I am greeted by an enormous and polite young African American guy who lets me in. There is the studio and a small display with old records, instruments, photos of the Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy and Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson II (who was younger than SBW I).

But I am the only person there: my host asks curiously: “Are you a musician too, sir?” Of course I am not, and answer that I am just a fan, that I have been one since I first heard those Diddley changes and R&B inflections that day when I was 10 years old. The guy in the Chess Studios is incredulous, shakes his head and says quietly “10 years old…” Although to me it is the most natural thing in the world, I get the impression that this is unusual for him. After all, the place is empty. Not many white Americans and possibly fewer African Americans go to 2120 South Michigan, it seems.

I go back into the studio. It is a plain cream room, scuffed, quite small, with a screened off production box at one end. I try to imagine the bands set up in here: first the Stones laying down It’s All Over Now, but then the Wolf or Muddy, backed by Johnny Johnson’s barrelling piano and Little Walter’s squealing pleading harp, nailed to the floor by Willie Dixon’s doghouse upright bass and pinned to the wall by Earl Phillips’ drums. It must have been as tight as Chicago’s road grid and as loud as the L Elevated Railroad.

And something extraordinary happens: I feel the ghost of the vibration of that sound, the spirit of Muddy singing Mojo Working or the Wolf predating his way through Killing Floor. I am reminded of a Greek holiday when we went to the cave of St John on Patmos…John The Revelator, in fact, as sung of by Son House.

The nature of the revelation and of the success of the Stones’ mission is clear: electric blues, the fast and sexy feral voice of black America, scary and exhilarating, liberated and liberating, kicking down the doors of race and breaking out the windows of inhibition.

So that is what I owe to the Stones. Later, at the Mayor’s reception, I get my fair share of small talk as the band plays a version of the Blues Brothers’ iteration of Robert Johnson’s Sweet Home Chicago. But I also tell my story to Gus Noble, an expat Scot and musician. He recalls how he visited Chess and was introduced to a certain elderly Mrs Burnett: she had said: “you might know me as Mrs Wolf.”

And Mastermind?

Obviously, I enjoyed it, although I was more nervous second time around. It was the dread of the known rather than a fear of the unknown. This time while I was waiting in the condemned seat waiting to be called forward to the Chair, I would have run away, but I was on my own (and it would have been a stupid thing to do.)

So I stayed, and did not too badly. In fact, in my Stones round I only failed by one to get a perfect score.

What happened in the question “whose poem did Mick read at Hyde Park after Brian’s death?” was this. All of my adult life I have believed that it was Keats’ Endymion. Don’t ask me why, I just have. So when I read many times that it was in fact Shelley’s Adonis (written about Keats) I made a point of correcting myself. Until the question was put and the beeper went off. I thought “I know this, relax” and did. And said “Keats” – I had reverted to my passive, “background” memory and was wrong.

The other feature of the Stones questions was that I had joked in the week of recording with Gary, the bar manager at the Glasgow Art Club about my subject. He said immediately “the answer is Delia Smith.” And so it was.

So no perfect round, nor in my General Knowledge: I missed “cartoon” as I was thrown by the Italian etymology and my guess of “newt” was as wrong as had been in 2013. Japanese beef I might have got on good day: but the key here was not to go to pieces, not to pass and to get on to the next question.

There followed a bit of nail-biting as it then became clear that I was the winner, which was something of a surprise as the Mad Men bloke seemed well in control.

But it was still not All Over Now. I was recalled to re-record my introduction of my subject. John Humphreys had said “the Rolling Stones” which I had repeated when I started; now I had to go back to say “The Rolling Stones 1962-82.” This I did, and was thanked by Mr H who added: “congratulations: you did very well not to look smug.” But that had not been my point – I had been on a mission.

So some thanks: to the Mastermind production team, one of whom kindly remarked: “You are a year older, but you’ve not lost it.” (Thanks for that, Anthony, it makes me feel like Mick.)

To Alan of course.

To the Wolf and Muddy. And to the Stones.

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