Adapted from article by Andy Davis / John S Stuart
Around late August or early September 1963, just as the Beatles celebrated the birth of Beatlemania with sessions for their “With The Beatles” LP at EMI's Abbey Road Studios in North London, another rock legend was developing just around the geographical corner. In a semi-detached house in Feltham, Middlesex, electronics engineer Harold May began an 18-month task, helping his sixteen-year-old son, Brian, to construct the world's most famous homemade guitar, the “Red Special”. In the meantime, Brian would have to be content with thrashing away at the small Spanish acoustic his parents had bought him for his seventh birthday. (Brian evidently mislaid this childhood guitar shortly afterwards, and didn't see it again until 1991, when at a “reunion” of former members of 1984, his school friend and first musical collaborator, Dave Dilloway, returned it to him. Brian was so thrilled, that he featured the guitar in the video for Queen's “Headlong” single.)
By 1964, Brian and Dave Dilloway were already recording amateur duets together, and by linking up their two reel-to-reel tape decks, they discovered that they could lay down guitars on one machine, and perhaps bass, percussion and sometimes vocals on the other. Although the technique was crude, and despite the occasional disaster, the effect was often surprisingly good. One of the earliest tapes from these primitive recording sessions survives to this day, and features Brian belting out Bo Diddley's eponymous R&B standard, “Bo Diddley”.
“This is a mono quarter-inch, reel-to-reel I found buried among various other oddments from the era,” recalls Dave Dilloway. “It certainly dates from before the formation of 1984. It was recorded in Brian's back room in Feltham, with Brian on lead vocals and guitar, and myself on bass and drums. The track is basic, but Brian's vocals are clear and recognisable. The guitar playing is fairly basic as well, but competent, without any real solos as such. This is the only tape in my collection of those double-track recordings. I'm unsure whether Brian himself has retained the tapes we made at the time, but I believe he usually ended up with the finished versions, so he may still have them somewhere.”
The duo also recorded four-track instrumental cover versions of several Shadows tunes – “Wonderful Land”, “Apache”, “FBI”, and “The Rise And Fall Of Fingel Blunt” - as well as “Ram bunk shush”, which they learned from the Shadows' American counterparts, the Ventures. Also on the same tape is their reading of Chet Atkins' “Windy And Warm”. Yet another reel reveals an attempt at Cliff Richard's “Bachelor Boy”, on which Brian, once again, takes the lead vocal. Dave Dilloway's theory is probably correct: May is known to have a meticulously catalogued personal collection of Queen (and pre-Queen) recordings and memorabilia, which almost certainly contains unfathomable reels of similar early material.
In the autumn of 1964, Brian and Dave formed a rapidly evolving band, through which many schoolmates passed, but which eventually settled with a line-up of bassist John “Jag” Garnham, drummer Richard Thompson, and harmonica-playing vocalist Tim Staffell. After rejecting names such as the Mind Boggles and Bod Chappy & the Beetles, the quintet named themselves after George Orwell's futuristic novel, “1984”. Their look was far from sci-fi, however, and they happily adopted the classic, clean-cut beat-group look of the day: jackets, or in Brian's case a cardigan, and narrow trousers and beat boots. Tim Staffell even acquired that year's fashion accessory, a pork-pie hat.
The band rehearsed regularly at Chase Bridge Primary School Hall in Twickenham (located next to the rugby ground), and on the 28th October 1964, gave their first public performance at the nearby St. Mary's Church Hall. It is believed that either one of the rehearsals, or the gig itself, was recorded, but unfortunately, no tape of this debut performance has survived through the years. Although 1984 recorded almost all of their live concerts for their own critical appraisal, to save on the expense of new tape they often wiped over old reels once they'd listened to them. Nevertheless, evidence of Brian May playing live does survive from this period, and the earliest example dates from an unknown gig (Shepperton Rowing Club is the favoured consensus), recorded in late 1965. This wasn't a 1984 performance though, but rather an ad-hoc trio comprising Brian May on bass and vocals, Pete 'Woolly' Hammerton (a school friend of Brian's) on guitar and vocals, and 1984's Richard Thompson on drums. The tape reveals the trio turning in versions of Martha Reeves And The Vandellas' "Dancing In The Street", the Beatles' "Eight Days A Week", "I'm Taking Her Home" - a song by the group Woolly later joined, the Others - and a brave attempt at the Who's "My Generation".
The Others comprised older boys from Hampton School, who in October 1964 had issued a single of their abrasive reading of Bo Diddley's "Oh Yeah", backed by "I'm Taking Her Home", on Fontana (TF 501). That was good!" claims singer, Tim Staffell. "I've still got that record buried somewhere deep in my mind - I remember the singer, Paul Stewart's voice and the quality of the guitar sound. The Others were a pretty significant influence. Maybe not in terms of the music, more in the sense that they were already doing it, which proved it was possible."
The Others clearly had attitude, something which 1984, or Tim Staffell at least, could only aspire to. "If I had tried to push 1984 in any direction," reveals Tim, "then that would have been it. Without hearing any of these tapes of our band - and I didn't even know they existed! - I'd say we probably sounded a lot safer than the Others. Mind you, they were different to us. Their guitar style was very much inspired by American R&B, whereas Brian's never was. Brian was a unique guitar player: he was able to extemporise a much more original way than most guitar players could. I hope he'll forgive me for saying so, but I never perceived him as having the dangerous image, which was necessary at the time - the cardigan says it all!
"In retrospect, 1984 was lightweight, a bit fluffy," concedes Tim. "It was impossible not to be naively ambitious - that was part and parcel of it - and the primary motivation to do it was what we saw in the media as the end results of success. But I guess we were realistic about it - we were at school, after all. Also there was a good deal of pressure in the 60s from our parents, and the conservative generation, to conform."
Although a version of "I'm Taking Her Home" by 1984 was captured live on the Shepperton tape, and Brian occasionally appeared with the Others on stage, it's worth stating once and for all that - despite the persistent rumours - he definitely doesn't feature on "Oh Yeah". In fact, Pete 'Woolly' Hammerton doesn't even play on the record - he formally joined the band later on.
In the autumn of 1965, leaving Hampton Grammar with no fewer than four 'A' Levels and ten 'O' levels, Brian enrolled at Imperial College in Kensington, London, to read physics and infra-red astronomy. Before breaking up for the Christmas break that year, he played the first in a series of gigs with 1984 at the college, a tradition he continued later with Smile, and in their formative days, with Queen. Although the exact date of the event has long since been forgotten, a very poor-quality tape still exists of 1984's college debut. The set was a typical one, comprising the group's broad blend of pop, R&B and soul covers, and included the following songs: "Cool Jerk" (originally by the Capitols), "Respect" (Otis Redding), "My Girl" (the Temptations), "Shake" (Sam Cooke), "Stepping Stone" (the Monkees), “You Keep Me Hanging On" (the Supremes), "Whatcha Gonna Do About It" (Small Faces), "Substitute" (the Who), "How Can It Be" (the B-side of the Birds' final single, "No Good Without You Baby"), "Dancing In The Street", "Dream" (Everly Brothers) and the Small Faces' "Sha La La La Lee".
"Our repertoire was a little too eclectic to have developed into any particular style," reckons Tim Staffell. "But the Small Faces were quite influential. When we were at school, the songs were dredged from all sorts of areas. I'd always liked rhythm'n'blues. Brian's input would have been Beatles-orientated, Dave's as well. Richard Thompson would have been more into R&B, and Jag didn't really have an agenda as far as songs were concerned. Because of the nature of the material we covered, our approach to the gigs was almost schoolboy cabaret. 1984 was not a dangerous, moody rock band! Which may have something to do with the way Queen evolved."
1984 opened 1966 with a couple of gigs at the Thames Rowing Club in Putney; and once again, a tape recorder was set up to document the group's progress. Two reels from January that year exist: the first is dated the 15th, and features "I'm A Loser" (the Beatles), "I Wish You Would" (the Yardbirds), "I Feel Fine" (the Beatles), "Little Egypt" (the Coasters), "Lucille" (Little Richard), "Too Much Monkey Business" (Chuck Berry), "I Got My Mojo Working" (Muddy Waters), "Walking The Dog" (Rufus Thomas) and "Heart Full Of Soul" (the Yardbirds).
The second, dated two weeks later (29th January), demonstrates the great variety and confidence of a band, which consistently renewed its repertoire. The show began with Jimmy Reed's "Bright Lights, Big City", moving into the Cookies' "Chains" (popularised by the Beatles), "Walking The Dog", "Lucille", "Our Little Rendezvous" (Chuck Berry), "Jack O' Diamonds" (Blind Lemon Jefferson, popularised by Lonnie Donegan “I 've Got My Mojo Working", "Little Egypt and Bo Diddley's "I'm A Man". The band’s finale was a version of Sonny Boy Williamson "Bye Bye Bird".
For an amateur band with little pretension towards stardom, or even serious attempt at securing a recording contract, a staggering amount of live 1984 material has been preserved on tape. Dave Dilloway, for instance, is the guardian of seven inch reel-to-reel, which he says reveals either a very long performance or compilation of various unknown dates. Either way, the tape is divided into five distinct sections, which might make tedious reading, but is an invaluable reference:
|Section 1||Section 2||Section 3||Section 4||Section 5|
|'Route 66', unknown instrumental, 'I'm Taking Her Home', 'Too Much Monkey Business', 'Yesterday' (featuring Brian May on lead vocals), 'Walking The Dog', and 'Lucille'.||'Little Rendezvous', 'Keep On Running', 'I Feel Fine', 'Walking The Dog', 'Jack 0f Diamonds', 'Hi-Heel Sneakers', 'I Want To Hold Your Hand', 'I Got My Mojo Working' and 'I Should Have Known Better'.||'Little Rendezvous', 'Jump Back Baby Jump Back', 'I Feel Fine', 'Bye Bye Bird', 'Little Egypt', 'Crazy House', 'Lucille', 'Oh Yeah', 'Heatwave', 'Too Much Monkey Business', 'I Should Have Known Better', and 'I Got My Mojo Working'.||'My Generation', 'Little Egypt', 'Dancing In The Street', 'Whatcha Gonna Do About It', 'I'm A Man', 'Heatwave', 'Lucille', and 'Bye Bye Bird'.||'Heart Full Of Soul', 'Too Much Monkey Business', 'Something's Got A Hold On Me', 'Keep On Running', 'My Generation', 'Tired Of Waiting', 'Bright Lights, Big City', and 'Happy Hendrix Polka'.|
"These are all domestic quality, single microphone recordings of early-era 1984," reveals Dave Dilloway. "It's mostly bluesy material, with some soul and Beatles songs. While the quality is basic, the sound is intelligible, although there isn't a large amount of identifiable Brian guitarwork. That came later in the band's history, when we included covers of Cream and Hendrirx. Brian's solo vocals on 'Yesterday' (on the first segment) are quite clear, however."
For much of 1966, the band carried on in a similar vein - Brian's and the others' college work permitting. For Brian May and his unsigned, Twickenham-based covers band, the highlight of the following year, 1967, was undoubtedly the gig he secured via through his contacts at the college - supporting Jimi Hendrix at Imperial. The date was 13th May, the day after the release of Hendrix's debut, "Are You Experienced". Brian May idolised Hendrix to such an extent that he'd been nicknamed "Brimi" - a combination of the two guitarists' names - so although 1984 had seen him perform before, it goes without saying they were thrilled when back-stage, they actually bumped into the ascending star as they filed past his dressing-room. It's a familiar story, but it's one worth repeating: Jimi enquired memorably, "Which way's the stage, man?"
1984's act had certainly blossomed by this point. Their attire was now obligatory Swinging London - or Swinging Middlesex - fare: frilly shirts, Regency jackets, striped hipsters secured with a white belt, and hairstyles extending inexorably over the ears, and indeed the eyes. "Somewhere along the line, there was an external influence there," says Tim Staffell. "There was someone calling the shots. I don't think all that was self-motivated. It's something I've never been comfortable with, which explains why I split away from it early on - certainly from Smile onwards -because it was going that way; as indeed it ended up with Queen. It's fair enough, but that sort of flamboyance is just not me. I look fairly uncomfortable in the picture of the band from that period. My idea of a rock musician is one with hair down his back, a dirty pair of Levi's on, looking at the floor, thoroughly unconcerned with the visual and external trappings, playing the most extraordinary virtuoso guitar. That was my attitude."
Back in February 1967, Brian's local paper, the 'Middlesex Chronicle' caught up with the band, and captured Tim Staffell in an equally decisive mood; although here, he was more enthusiastic about the latest trend. "Psychedelic music is certainly here to stay," he claimed. "It makes more of music than mere sound, it makes it a whole and complete art form." Dave Dilloway, who also handled the group's light show, added: "We use every-thing in our act, including things like shaving foam, and plastic bricks we throw around."
The 'Chronicle' was obviously impressed, and its reporter had this to say about a performance by what it called "one of the most forward-looking groups today": "Standards like 'Heatwave' receive a very original treatment, mostly due to the sounds that Brian coaxes out of his guitar. Jazz chords and electronic sounds add feeling and nuance to numbers that are often churned out wholesale. Using two bass drums for a fuller sound, Richard's drumming, combined with the full bass riffs of Dave and the steady (rhythm guitar) work of John, provides a firm basis for experiments in sound - an opportunity which is not wasted."
"To be quite honest with you, there's more substance in the literary content there, than in the musical," laughs Tim Staffell. "If someone genuinely thought that, then I'm surprised! Brian might have used a fuzz-box, but generally, it was au natural. I remember in the Smile days, somebody wrote about "humming chords of wonder', referring to my bass playing. The reality of it was that sometimes I did try and play chords on the bass guitar, which might have come out as a deep-throated roar, but actually sounded like a load of crap!"
"We did used to tickle about with a few lights," suggests Dave Dilloway, "but being a local band, money was tight and there wasn't a fortune to spend on the band." As to 1984's psychedelic sound, Dave adds: "Brian did use a bit of fuzz, yes, and Pink Floyd influences and a bit of screaming guitar. He'd actually built a fuzz box into his guitar, which was fairly unique for the day, but typical Brian. If you look carefully at recent pictures of his 'Red Special' you can see the fuzz switch taped over."
In September 1967, no doubt boosted by their praise - sincere or not - in the local press, the continuing evidence of their performance tapes and their recent Hendrix support slot, 1984 entered the local heats of a battle-of-the-bands competition at the Top Rank Club in Croydon, just south of London. Effectively a promotion for Scotch tape, entrance to the contest could only be secured via a demo recorded on a Scotch reel. 1984's effort duly arrived in the form of a two-track master, featuring covers of Marvin Gaye's "Ain't That Peculiar?" and the Everly Brothers' "Crying In The Rain" (on stage, both tracks were usually enhanced by characteristic Brian May guitar solos, but conservatism prevailed, and they were absent in this instance).
A copy of this recording still survives, carefully guarded by the custodian of the 1984 archive. "This tape is a quarter-inch, mono reel-to-reel," recalls Dave Dilloway. "Tim took lead vocals on 'Ain't That Peculiar?', and Tim and Brian duetted on 'Crying In The Rain'. Brian's vocal style and tone can be clearly discerned, if one knows his voice. The songs were recorded in single takes, using a single microphone fed directly to the recorder. There was no mix facility so it has a 'live' feel, a very good clean sound. The mix was achieved using the old fashioned technique of microphone position and relative volume levels of the amplified instruments. As far as I am aware, only the one (master) copy of this tape exists."
As has been well-documented, after two sets at the competition (one of which saw Brian, Dave, John Garnham and drummer Richard Thompson acting as the back-up band for a singer called Lisa Perez), 1984 won the contest, and walked away with a reel of blank tape (Scotch, of course) and an album each on the CBS label. (Tim took the top prize, Simon & Garfunkel's "Sounds Of Silence", Brian had to make do with a Barbra Streisand LP, and Dave Dilloway became the proud owner of an album by Irish bandleader Tommy Makem!) More importantly, their demo tape was forwarded to the CBS A&R department for the national showdown, although, clearly, they didn't win.
True to form, 1984's performance that evening was committed to tape - for an unpublished review by 'Melody Maker', no less - but was probably erased shortly afterwards. The twenty-minute set consisted of the Everleys' "So Sad", Hendrix's "Stone Free", Buddy Knox's "She's Gone" and Eddie Floyd's "Knock On Wood". After the gig, the band were invited by a visiting promoter to participate in the all-night gala event which has since gone down as one of the key gigs of the London underground scene: Christmas On Earth Continued, at London's Olympia Theatre, on December 23rd 1967.1984 was the lowest profile act at this decidedly high-profile event, and after Jimi Hendrix, Traffic, Pink Floyd, the Herd, and Tyrannosaurus Rex had all taken to the stage, they only got to perform their humble set of covers at 5 o'clock in the morning. When Brian finally plugged in his 'Red Special', 1984 played a thirty-minute set to a very small, and less than enthusiastic, audience.
Also from 1967, and of far more interest, is 1984's professionally recorded Thames Television demo tape. During his first-year of study at Twickenham Technical College, Dave Dilloway had made friends with a number of technicians, or trainee technicians, at the Teddington-based ITV Company, which served the London area. The station had recently invested in new recording equipment, and rather than hire professional musicians at the usual union rate, in a set up similar to the first Queen sessions at the De Lane Lea studios, 1984 were let loose in the studio to record at their leisure. Dave Dilloway's carefully preserved tape still plays perfectly, and includes the following songs: "Hold On I'm Coming", "Knock On Wood", "NSU", "How Can It Be", two early run-throughs of the original May/Staffell composition "Step On Me" (which eventually became the B-side to Smile's "Earth"), "Purple Haze", "Our Love Is Drifting'", and medleys of "Remember"/"Sweet Wine" and "Get Out My Life Woman"/"Satisfaction". The session ended with a run-through of "My Girl".
"What an extraordinary amalgam!" declares Tim Staffell today. "There's Tamla, Cream, Hendrix, Lee Dorsey… 'Our Love Is Driftin' ', we'd have heard by Paul Butterfield. I'd forgotten there was such a large soul component in 1984!"
Dave Dilloway has the technical details: "This tape is the most recent, best and most representative of 1984 that I'm aware of. It is mono, but since it was made on good quality TV studio equipment and was carried out along the lines of a proper studio recording, with separately mixed microphones for each source, it is remarkably good quality for its age. The material, except for 'Step On Me', is all cover versions, but as it dates from the late 1984 era, Brian's playing is more prominent and effective, with his own style starting to show through. All the performances are competent - particularly Tim's vocals and Brian's guitar; although the mix is a little heavy on John's rhythm guitar for some reason, probably the 'ear' of the recording engineer at the time. All tracks were laid down in one take, i.e., no overdubbing at all, so the sound is predominantly simple, as per our live versions."
And that was 1984's swansong. In the spring of 1968, shortly after the Thames recording, mainly due to the pressures of infrequent meetings and university studies - coupled with increasing musical differences - 1984 scaled down their operations drastically. Brian May left the band, and Tim Staffell took over on lead guitar for a while. A little later, Tim himself quit, leaving Dave Dilloway, John Garnham and Richard Thompson to rebuild the group, which soldiered on into the 70s, content merely to play for fun. They all conceded that 1984 had been a good, solid, and popular local band, but that it didn't have the necessary spark or originality to transform into a great one.
|Date||Musicians||Song(s) recorded||Status||Other information|
|Summer 1964||Brian May: guitar/vocal; Dave Dilloway: guitar/vocal/percussion.||'Wonderful Land', 'Apaché', 'FBI', 'Flingel Blunt', 'Bachelor Boy', 'Windy And Warm', 'Ram Bunk Shush', 'Bo Diddley'||Unreleased||Recorded at Brian's parents' home, 6 Walsham Road, Feltham, London. Primarily instrumental home demo duets.|
|Winter 1965||Brian May: bass guitar/vocal; Pete "Woolly" Hammerton: guitar/vocal; Richard Thompson: drums.||'Dancing In The Street', 'Eight Days A Week', 'I’m Taking Her Home', 'My Generation'||Unreleased||Recorded live at Shepperton Rowing Club. Technically not a 1984 recording, but rather an ad-hoc trio. Poorest of all 1984/Brian May recordings. Brian plays bass guitar only, but cannot clearly be heard.|
|15 January 1966||Brian May: guitar; Dave Dilloway: bass guitar; John Garnham: guitar/vocals; Richard Thompson: drums; Tim Staffell: vocals/harmonica; John Sanger: piano.||'I'm A Loser', 'Help!', 'Jack Of Diamonds', 'I Wish You Would', 'I Feel Fine', 'Little Egypt', 'Lucille', 'Too Much Monkey Business', 'I Got My Mojo Working', 'Walking The Dog', 'Heart Full Of Soul'.||Unreleased||Recorded live at Thames Rowing Club, Putney. Rehearsals held at Chase Bridge Primary School Hall (next to Twickenham Rugby Stadium). Cover versions of Yardbirds, Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Spencer Davis Group. Brian lead vocals on 'Yesterday', harmonies on 'Help!' and 'I'm A Loser'. Rehearsals erased/re-recorded, so few survive.|
|29 January 1966||Brian May: guitar; Dave Dilloway: bass guitar; John Garnham: guitar/vocals; Richard Thompson: drums; Tim Staffell: vocals/harmonica; John Sanger: piano.||'Bright Lights Big City', 'Chains', 'Walking The Dog', 'Lucille', 'Little Rendezvous', 'Jack Of Diamonds', 'I Got My Mojo Working', 'Little Egypt', 'I’m A Man', 'Bye Bye Bird'.||Unreleased||Recorded live at Thames Rowing Club, Putney.|
|31 March 1967||Brian May: guitar; Dave Dilloway: bass guitar; John Garnham: guitar/vocals; Richard Thompson: drums; Tim Staffell: vocals/harmonica; John Sanger: piano.||'Hold On I'm Coming', 'Knock On Wood', 'NSU', 'How Can It Be', 'Step On Me (take 1)', 'Step On Me (take 2)', 'Purple Haze', 'Our Love Is Drifting', 'Remember', 'Sweet Wine', 'Get Out Of My Life Woman', '(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction', 'My Girl'.||Unreleased||Recorded at Thames Television, Broom Lane Studios, Teddington.|
|13 May 1967||'Cool Jerk', 'Respect', 'My Girl', 'Shake', '(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone', 'You Keep Me Hanging On', 'Whatcha Going To Do About It', 'Substitute', 'How Can It Be', 'Dancing In The Street', 'Dream', 'Sha La La La Lee'||Unreleased||Recorded live at Imperial College. Supporting Jimi Hendrix.|
|September 1967||Brian May: bass guitar; John Garnham: guitar/vocals; Richard Thompson: drums; Tim Staffell: vocals/harmonica; John Sanger: piano.||'Ain't That Peculiar', 'Crying In The Rain'.||Unreleased||Recorded live at Top Rank Club, Croydon, for Battle Of The Bands competition.|
|23 December 1967||'So Sad', 'Stone Free', 'She’s Gone', 'Knock On Wood'.||Non-existent||Recorded live at the Olympia, for Christmas On Earth charity showcase. Supporting: Jimi Hendrix, Traffic, Pink Floyd, Herd, and Tyrannosaurus Rex.|