At The Barrier honours Rob Lewis – Friend and maverick musician – who passed away this week.
At The Barrier was shocked and devastated to learn of the sudden death, earlier this week, of our great friend Rob Lewis. Rob was many things to many, many people – a devoted husband and father to Valerie and his young family, an unassuming academic, a leader of his profession, a dedicated (if long-suffering) Bolton Wanderers supporter and, as At The Barrier explains, a maverick musician of great distinction.
Rob’s band, Five Year Shoes, never made a commercially released album and never achieved any notable success, but they were a mainstay of the music scene that flourished in Bolton during the early to mid 1970s. Shoes were one of a kind; their music was, on the surface, incomprehensively baffling, but – for those of us who took the trouble to peel back that surface and listen – it was humourous, tuneful and mightily entertaining. I mean – just look at some of the titles and subject matter of their songs:
No Left Stone Unturned – A song based on a J.G.Ballard science fiction story;
The Lights on a Thousand Foot Tower – An ode to the television transmitter aerial on Winter Hill – a moor high above Bolton;
His Consort Cotswold Queen – A “found” poem, dedicated to a cabbage (and, in concert, recited by Rob to that very vegetable);
Baking a Cake – A baking recipe put to music (long before anyone thought that Celebrity Bakeoff was a viable idea for mass entertainment);
The Leonard Street Creeper – Various villains and Robert Newton go on a milk-stealing rampage;
Day of the Privets – A horror story of privets taking sentient form in Bolton’s Queens Park during the town’s annual “wakes” fortnight.
And so it goes on… Shoes’ songs were unique and came from the part of the human brain that is only accessible to the privileged few – people like Rob and his brother Dave, the founders of and principal songwriters for Five Year Shoes.
But let’s wind back to the beginning. Five Year Shoes emerged in 1969; they took their name (apparently) from a schoolmate of Dave’s who allegedly wore the same pair of shoes every day of his five years at secondary school. The band’s original line-up was: Dave on lead guitar, Rob on guitar and vocals, Phil Drake on drums and Noel Pemberton-Billing on bass and they gigged mainly around the Bolton area. Noel left the band in 1971 (he went to join Bolton’s top band [The Bolton] Iron Maiden) and was replaced by bass player extraordinaire Pete Wawrysz, as Shoes entered their (relatively) Golden Era – a period that included numerous gigs at local colleges and at the prestigious Octagon Theatre, support slots to bands such as Principal Edwards’ Magic Theatre and Sassafras and becoming the support band of choice to The Bolton Iron Maiden.
Pete left the band in 1974 to form his own outfit, Polska, a band that also left an indelible imprint on the Bolton music scene, and Shoes continued as a three piece, with Rob switching to bass. It was this line-up that left the only recorded memoir of the Five Year Shoes legend – a (very) limited edition CD recording of a gig at The Trotters, a now defunct Bolton pub and the “gig of last resort” for most of us who were active on the scene at the time. It certainly is a treasured memory – even more so now, following this week’s sad news – containing definitive versions of most of the songs listed above, plus Phil’s A Crystal World, Rob’s Swiss Snuff and Dave’s crowd-pleasing Three Men’s Hankies.
Five Year Shoes called it a day in 1976. In Rob’s word’s, the band didn’t so much break up, as fade away, as big musical changes started to take root. College bookings were starting to be done via professional agencies, and pubs and clubs were on the lookout for cabaret-style acts rather than experimental rock bands, so the “bread and butter” gigs that kept bands like Shoes afloat were a lot harder to come by. In truth, that was a malaise that affected many bands on many thriving local scenes; I know from my involvement that, on the Bolton scene, bands either “smartened up” – The Bolton Iron Maiden started to spend far more time in the guise of their Rock and Roll alter-ego Teenagers in Love and my own band, The Cakes, mutated into a country-rock act, Hickory Wind – or the participants gave up and focused on a “proper” job. The Lewis brothers did buck this trend for a while with their “phoenix” band 21/20, but the writing was on the wall and, for Rob, a desk at the Bolton Central Library called.
Five Year Shoes were trailblazers in a number of ways. Their choice of material was eclectic in the extreme. Unlike many local bands on the circuit, they seldom included “cover” versions of rock standards in their sets, preferring instead to feature their own left-field material. They never shied from musical experimentation either; organ and stylophone were enthusiastically incorporated into their instrumental arsenal – regardless of the limited ability of any of the band members to play such instruments. Furthermore, they were amongst the first of the Bolton bands to get serious over their choice of equipment – they were the first band I ever saw with snazzy Orange amplification (Rob explained that he and Dave made a special trip to London to Clifford Cooper’s shop to buy them), they always used Fender guitars (Dave’s left-handed Stratocaster and Rob’s Precision Bass) and pioneered, at least locally, the use of such devices as the Watkins Copycat (which Rob used to agonising effect to enter Phil’s Crystal World) and a thing called a Sound Rotator, which made a guitar sound like your stomach does after a particular hot and liquid curry.
Best of all, they had their own van – a blue Commer LD that became a local legend in its own right, not least for its annual role as the conveyance of choice for an unfeasibly high percentage of Bolton’s youth to the Reading Festival – a mission which it only seldom failed to accomplish, despite its age, attention-seeking hunger for maintenance and the dodgy structural integrity of its wheel arches! But, perhaps, most memorable of all were the songs, their titles and their lyrics. Five Year Shoes preceded Half Man Half Biscuit by ten years in coming up with song titles that made you stop dead in your tracks before doubling up with laughter.
I have great personal reason to be grateful to Rob and Five Year Shoes. When my first gigging band, Mandella, were starting out, Rob, Dave and and Phil were all very generous with their support and advice. Rob let me use his treasured Orange amp and speakers on several occasions, and they even provided the use of their van to get us to early gigs. Thanks guys. Throughout 1975 and 1976, Five Year Shoes and The Cakes were almost literally joined at the hip. In fact, we were joined at the drummer, as both bands shared Phil Drake’s sticksman services (neither of our gig diaries were sufficiently full for this arrangement to become a logistical problem!) Phil passed away in December 1982 and is still fondly remembered by all of us who came into contact with him.
And now, sadly, Rob is no longer with us. I loved his company. I loved to reminisce with him about those halcyon days in Bolton. I loved his anecdotes from his college days at Cambridge University (“Did I ever tell you the story of when I met Nick Drake at a Cambridge party?”) and I loved to hear his photograph-like recollections of the equipment that the various bands that played the Bolton venues like the iconic B.I.T. used. When the news of Rob’s passing started to spread, the most common comment that was made related to his gentle, stoic demeanour. Particularly to members of our next generation, he was noted for his calmness in stressful (usually sparked by another dire Wanderers’ performance) situations and his ability to shrug off any setbacks. Remarkably (or perhaps maybe not so) lots of people mentioned the apple that he always ate at half-time at Bolton matches… In all the time I knew him, I was only aware of him raising his voice in dissent on a couple of occasions; the first was at the Peoples’ Free Festival in Windsor Great Park in 1974 when Rob joined those attempting to defend the site against the hoards of police who had arrived to shift the grubby hippies off the Queen’s back lawn, and the second was far more recently, at the protest to reject rogue Bolton Wanderers’ owner, Ken Anderson, from the club – and even then he protested with a smile on his face!
Rob Lewis – it was a privilege to have known you. You brought a great deal of light to lives of everyone that you came into contact with, and we’ll never forget you. Our hearts go out to Valerie and the family and to your brother Dave.
Love and Best Wishes from everyone at At The Barrier.