Adapted from article by Andy Davis / John S Stuart
Roger’s musical development began inauspiciously enough in Truro, in 1957. The Taylor family move to this Cornish town from their native King’s Lynn, in Norfolk, and enrolled the young Roger as a junior at the local Bosvigo School. It was here, having learned the rudiments of the Ukulele, that Roger formed a skiffle group called the Bubblingover Boys. “None of us could actually play. We just stood there and strummed and twanged tuneless chords, it was dreadful!”.
In 1961, Taylor was given a couple of drums for Christmas, although it would be another three years before he put them to any effective use. His first proper group was formed at Truro School, the local public school to which he won a scholarship. This was an instrumental trio, which boasted a variety of names, like Beat Unlimited and the Cousin Jacks.
“The group itself was myself on lead guitar, Roger on drums and a chap called David Dowding on bass”, remembers Mike Dudley, a classmate of Roger’s who lived in nearby St. Agnes. Other sources have listed The Falcons as yet another name for the band, but “I don’t remember that”, claims Dudley. “Though that’s not to say it didn’t happen”.
Mike Dudley dates the formation of Beat Unlimited to 1964. “The first picture I have of Roger and myself in a band is dated July of that year”, he says. “We’re rehearsing in a barn on the farm owned by Dave Dowding’s parents in New Mills, an agricultural area just outside of Truro. If you look closely, you can see the saddle on the wall behind Dave in the picture. Roger looks about 4’6" tall and about twelve years old, although he was actually about fifteen”.
“We played the usual stuff, which everybody starts with”, recalls Mike. “Shadows tunes like ‘Riders in the Sky’, on which Roger played guitar, ‘Apache’, ‘FBI’ and ‘Midnight’. At the time, none of was singing significantly. Than a singer came along – whose name I can’t remember – and we did Rolling Stones songs, followed by Chuck Berry”.
The group played for school friends and at private parties, and apparently even secured a gig for the local Liberal Party. It’s been long rumoured that some reels of live material were recorded around this period, but nothing has ever surfaced.
In early 1965, Mike and Roger abandoned their own Beat Unlimited/Cousin Jacks and accepted an offer to join Johnny Quale And The Reactions – swelling the group to a six piece – after meeting singer Johnny Grose and guitarist Graham Hankins. The other members were Jim Craven on bass, and John ‘Acker’ Snell, a devotee of a certain Mr Bilk, on Saxophone.
“With Johnny Quale”, remembers Mike Dudley, “we played all sorts of stuff: pop, ‘Muddy Waters’ Blues, ‘What I Say’ by Ray Charles, Swinging Blue Jeans tracks (which were actually old blues numbers), and Elvis Presley and Billy Fury - type ballads, which were Johnny’s speciality. Sometimes, we did one set with him and another more-or-less instrumental. Johnny was a pretty reasonable Elvis – cum - Fury clone. He could certainly sing, but he used to have a problem with his voice, where he’d have to drink glycerine and disgusting stuff like that”.
Vocal problems notwithstanding, on 15th March 1965, Grose felt confident enough to enter the group, in which he masqueraded as Johnny Quale, in the fifth annual Rock ‘n’ Roll Rhythm Championship of Cornwall – a sixteen act teen contest organised by the Truro Round table. The judges were ‘one of Devon’s premier beat groups, The Couriers’, who had been chosen after competitors complained that ‘the adjudicators should be more familiar with the latest pop trends’. “The previous bunch of impresarios from the local dance hall, the Flamingo, down in Redruth”, adds Mike Dudley.
An impressive 800 teenagers each paying a sixpence entrance fee, crammed themselves into Truro City Hall that night. Johnny Quale and the Reactions performed two songs, but didn’t win.
“I remember who won and why”, says Mike. “There was an R&B group from St. Austell with a harmonica and all the rest of it called The Individuals. They did ‘I’m a Man’ all dressed in their parkas. When the curtains opened, they had their backs to the audience. They turned around and started singing, and then a very attractive girl, who they probably picked up that night, came on and did a really good go-go dance. In 1965 that swung it. We came fourth, but a few days later, Roger appropriated the girl and had his revenge!”.
Throughout the remainder of 1965, The Reactions continued to play around Truro, backing Johnny Quale with his repertoire of ballads, in support slots for bands like those parka wearing Intruders. By November, The Reaction parted company with Quale – in an incident about a gig taking precedence over an Elvis film. The Reaction took another vocalist in the form of a flamboyant butcher’s assistant named Roger Brokenshaw.
Like his predecessor, Brokenshaw, a one-time professional entertainer, had a stage name – Sandy – that was a hangover from his days in an outfit called Sandy and the Beachboys. He’d entered into The Reaction’s orbit via his work promoting village hall dances. One night, “He’d asked if we’d like to do a couple of numbers with him” remembers Mike Dudley, “so we tried him out on a couple of songs”. He was in.
“I’d been singing since the year dot”, admits Roger Brokenshaw, “I’m an all rounder. I was born in 1941, began singing around 1952 and I’m still singing professionally today”. Back in 1965, Brokenshaw would have been 24, considerably older than the teenagers from Truro School. His experience lay at the heart of his appeal: “I’d been abroad”, He says, “and I knew the business”.
“Roger Brokenshaw was a shouter”, reckons Ricky Penrose, who the following year would replace Jim Craven as The Reactions bassist. “But he had personality, he put things across”. He also had contacts: “Brokenshaw had access to some demos, including some from the States”, remembers Mike Dudley. “That meant we could do a few songs which nobody knew the origin of. In 1966, we got hold of Creation’s ’Painter Man’ before it was on the market. We even occasionally billed ourselves as The Creation in adverts, which would say, ‘Thursday The Reaction, Friday The Creation. It was our little bit of marketing”.
Brokenshaw’s predilection for black American music pushed The Reactions into new territories. “We actually had a very good soul band for those days in the West Country”, recalls Mike Dudley, “We did songs such as ‘Mr Pitiful’, ‘Shake’, ‘Knock On Wood’, ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’, and ‘My Girl’. ‘Down In The Valley’, ‘In The Midnight Hour’ and ‘Land of 1000 Dance’ were always favourites. I can read music a bit and ‘Acker’ Snell, the sax player, could read it quite well. Between us we picked up the chords and had quite reasonable arrangements, as opposed to some of our contemporaries”. And it wasn’t all soul, either. “When Roger Brokenshaw was in the band we’d alternate our soul numbers with a rock set featuring Roger Taylor on vocals, which included ‘Summertime Blues’, ‘Satisfaction’, ‘Long Tall Sally’, and ‘Smokestack Lightning’.
On 17th November 1965, The Reactions played four short sets in ‘An Evening of Drama and Music’ at the Methodist Hall, St. Agnes’, which included performances of ‘Meet George’ – a comedy by Patricia Brooks, ‘Miss Tarzan’ – a farce by Arnold English. They also played the occasional show without Sandy, and snapshots of The Reactions gig at Truro School’s 1965 Christmas dance captured Roger Taylor with a microphone attached to his kit, sharing vocal duties with guitarist Graham Hankins.
The music was changing along with the line-up. By this time, Mike Dudley had switched from guitar to organ – a Vox Continental – a move, which proved crucial to the band’s musical development, and success. They also added Bob Dylan tunes to their set, including ‘She Belongs To Me’, ‘Desolation Row’, ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ and ‘Ballad Of A Thin Man’.
“We were actually interested in the music”, claims Mike Dudley. “We scarcely drank. We did get pissed now and again, and we all chase women – and Roger was the most successful at it, the girls wanted to bay him – but mainly, it was the music. Actually, though, Roger was less interested than some of the others. He led us, because he was the best musician. He’d hear something and he’d want to play it. Whereas I was more into blues and later rock and heavy rock, he was orientated towards pop. In terms of material, Roger more or less did what the others wanted to do, with the odd exception – playing Dylan was his idea”.
By Early 1966, Roger’s ‘O’ level year at Truro School, Graham Hankins was replaced by a new guitarist, Geoff Daniel (who was known to his friends as Ben). Not to be outdone, Taylor too acquired a pseudonym, ‘Splodge’, coined for no other reason than it rhymed with ‘Rog’. On 15th March, with a target painted onto Taylor’s bass drum skin, and Roger Brokenshaw as their front man, The Reactions once again locked musical horns with dozen-or-so local competitors at the Round Table’s sixth Rock and Rhythm Championship. This year, the judges were ‘six well-known figures in the dancing world of the South West’, and like the previous bash, 800 teenagers packed the City Hall, each rooting for his or her favourite act. The local paper, reporting on this hotbed of youthful exuberance with the headline, ‘Beat Night Is A Screaming Success’, noted that ‘Banners, streamers, whistles and cat-calls greeted every group. Emotions ran high as rival supporters clashed in vocal battle’
“I came on with a short-length, pink and blue sheepskin jacket”, recalls Roger Brokenshaw. “We played ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’ and the old Wilson Pickett number ‘In The Midnight Hour’. Roger Taylor and I shared the vocals, with me taking the lead. And we won!” According to the Truro press, ‘Thousands of pounds’ worth of equipment was used for the contest, but there was little originality or variety in the choice of instruments. This may have been why a group using a saxophone and an electric organ won. The Reactions, it went on, ‘gave a highly polished performance,’ and were rewarded for their efforts by being mobbed by young girls’ You can almost see the delight on their faces.
The band’s next advert in the local ‘West Briton and Royal Cornwall Gazette’ rightfully boasted: ‘don’t book a group. Book a spectacle.’ Noticeably this March 1966 announcement also saw the transition from The Reactions (in the plural) to the instantly hipper The Reaction (singular). The Rock and Rhythm prize included a silver cup, an offer to audition to the BBC (which didn’t materialise) and a bill-opening slot when the current Gerry and the Pacemakers tour hit the ‘Entertainment Centre of Cornwall’, the Flamingo Ballroom in Redruth.
Now proudly billed as the official ‘Champion group of Cornwall’, Roger Taylor’s Reaction announced itself on flyers as the ‘Fabulous six-piece group with sax and organ’. On August 15th, they travelled as far east as Dartmouth in Devon for a headline gig, while the following day they opened for the Kinks at Torquay Town Hall’s ‘Summer Spectacular’ complete with a ‘Fabulous Mod Fashion parade’
By this time Mike Dudley had begun a Reaction scrapbook, a compendium of printed and photographic mementos pasted into a Truro School exercise jotter. “We used this to chat up women”, admits Mike. “On the back it’s labelled ‘Visitor’s Book’ and while we were playing we’d locate likely women and after the gig, ask if they’d like to sign their names in it. Once they did, we were in, and it was out the back, and into the van if we could persuade them. Which we often did, and there are a good two or three hundred names in this book!”
The girls were also asked to make comments. “Fucking Great!” wrote one. “Absolutely great, I hope they continue” said another, “Morning Dew is fantastic!” Oh there’s one here which says “Bloody crummy!” On 5th September 1966 on forward thinking young fan, Vivian Taylor (no relation) from Coventry, wrote in Mike’s book: “Fantastic, all good looking. Ought to make a record”. Which is what they did.
“Our old friend, Johnny Quale, phoned up and said he’d met EMI producer Norrie Paramor who apparently had an interest in a studio in Wadebridge in north Cornwall. Johnny asked if we would back him on a couple of songs for a demo he wanted to send to Norrie”. Quale also had an offer from TV impresario Val Parnell, to appear on his ‘Saturday Nigh At The London Palladium’ variety show. “I think the studio was little more than a portable set-up in an old cinema”, continued Mike. “So we went up there, practised once, and played”.
The Reaction backed Johnny Quale on four songs: Louis Prima’s “Buona Sera”, The Undertakers “Just A Little Bit”, “What’s On Your Mind” by Shelby Smith and Buddy Guy’s ‘I’ll Go Crazy’. The performances are accomplished, and in places, quite remarkable. Mike Dudley’s piping organ and Roger’s assertive drumming are the dominant features on the four tracks. Roger adds backing vocals to ‘I’ll Go Crazy’, easily the cream of the Quale quartet. Not surprisingly, though, it’s Roger’s drumming which is particularly noteworthy throughout. His highly individual style technique of syncopated offbeat rhythms and articulated fills grab the attention. Coupled with his passion for full use of bass and tom-toms, it’s amazing that a seventeen-year-old drummer could be so stylish and sophisticated.
“At the end of the EP session”, recalls Mike Dudley, “which was done in either one or two takes – probably one – whoever was recording us came up and said, ‘Slip us £20 and you can make a 45’, So, on the spot we did “In The Midnight Hour” and “I Feel Good (I Got You)”
If Johnny Quale was an Elvis clone, then it was Presley’s tame Hollywood years, which had, provide him with his inspiration. Once they were free from the shackles of his anachronistic style, The Reaction let rip. “In the Midnight Hour” opens explosively with a characteristically Queen-style Taylor drum solo before giving way to his distinctively husky vocals. I recall reading somewhere that the human voice hardly ages and in Roger’s case this is certainly true: surface noise apart, the disc sounds like it could have been recorded yesterday. “I Got You (I Feel Good)” is another track brimming with Taylor’s vocal and drumming virtuosity.
“Roger beat a fantastic, full sound from his drums”, recalls bassist Ricky Penrose. “There were no gaps when he played. Keith Moon in The Who was a big idol. Rog was very fast and very strong on the bass drum pedal. He was just a brilliant drummer”.
Mike Dudley, having played a key part in the recordings, is a little more critical. On recently hearing the disc for the first time in thirty years he commented: “It was irritating because the sax was over-recorded. Otherwise the timing was a bit naff and, overall, it’s a bit clattery. It shows up the fact that we ad-libbed it! As soon as I heard that 45 again, it reminded me that we booted John Snell out shortly afterwards, because he could never get the bloody sax in tune! It sounds terrible!”.
“There were probably a dozen copies of the EP cut”, adds Mike, “because Johnny Grose had them made to send off as demos, and we all had one each. There probably wasn’t more than one copy of the 45 cut for each member of the band who was there; which would have been Ricky Penrose, myself, John Snell, Roger, and the guitarist Geoff Daniel. So there were perhaps five or six copies made”.
Back in 1966, there was another recording made of The Reaction, this time the of the band in concert in front of about 300 fans at the Truro City Hall, probably in either July or October. The thirty five minute tape contains eight songs: ‘Game of Love’, ‘Hey Mama (Keep Your Big Mouth Shut), ‘Tell Me Watcha Gonna Do About It’, ‘Slow Down’, ‘Respect’, ‘I Feel Good’, ‘It’s Gonna Work Out Fine’ and ‘Land of 1000 Dances’
“I made the recording on an HMV open reel, four-track machine”, recalls Neil Battersby, The Reaction’s roadie and driver of their blue Thames Trader van. “I made it for my own amusement. I think the band listened to it afterwards, but I doubt that it had any bearing on what they did. The thing was, though, if I put the recorder in the hall, the band made too much noise. With only a basic, plastic microphone plugged into the back of the machine via a five pin plug, when we tried it out in the hall, everything was distorted, so I went into the canteen at the back of the building, set the machine up on the table where we made the tea and coffee, and watched the ‘magic eye’ marker come down to acceptable degree”.
With the microphone in one room and the band in another – even a band, as full on as The Reaction – it’s not surprising that the audio quality of Battersby’s tape is rather poor. “I recorded the numbers, not the audience participation”, he adds. Nevertheless the tape is a startling document of the pre-fame activities of one of the world’s most famous musicians. Along with Mike Dudley’s organ playing, it’s Taylor’s crisp, ambitious drumming and those unmistakably lived-in sandpaper vocals, which lend this recording a spine chilling authenticity, and a right to be hailed as one of rock’s hidden treasures. When Britain finally gets around to officially recognising popular music as an integral aspect of its cultural heritage, a copy of this recording should take pride of place in a permanent exhibition alongside such artefacts as the Sex Pistols “Never Mind The Bullocks” album sleeve and replicas of the Beatles MBEs.
The tape is low-fi, technically flawed, bass-heavy with virtually no top-end frequencies, and when measured against Queen studio masterpieces like “A Night At The Opera”, would probably be considered by most to be unlistenable - despite that, as a window into the past-life of a rock superstar it’s priceless. The line-up is probably Taylor, Dudley and Penrose, (Daniel, Snell and Brokenshaw having been dropped from the band at this point.)
The tape opens with “Game of Love” which chugs along at a familiar enough pace, before The Reaction take the up-tempo R&B swagger of “Hey Mama, Keep Your Big Mouth Shut”, slow it down, stretch it out to over eight minutes in length, and infuse it with a kind of cock-sure licence to thrill rarely heard on a 1966 recording – let alone an amateur one. The version of Larry William’s “Slow Down” hinges around a Wurlitzer-organ-style whirl from Dudley, which, again elevates The Reaction’s song far beyond the realms of a cover of the Beatles covering an R&B number. To top it all, the finale, “Land of 1000 Dances”, ends with an almighty drum crescendo which Roger hammers everything in sight – including remnants of his family’s piano, which had been hauled on stage and covered in paint. “He was very forward thinking with ideas about how something should be produced”, noted Ricky Penrose. “The piano was only one idea. He used to wipe petrol around the top of his cymbals and light them”.
“Roger used to endear himself to the owners of the halls and places we played”, recalls Mike Dudley. “By bringing along four six-inch nails and banging them into the stage across the spikes on his drum stands, to stop the drums moving around. People used to go ape-shit at this”.
“We weren’t run of the mill pop. It was certainly different from two guitars, drums and bass. We’d just finish being more or less a soul group and were getting into the rock stuff. It was a hangover from playing four chords in soul numbers. Generally, we didn’t do carbon copies of anything except more bluesy stuff. Later on we’d cover Hendrix and Cream pretty carefully. Around the time that tape was made, we were trying to make up for the lack of guitar as well; it was a very full sound. That’s when we started going out as a three piece, Roger, Ricky and myself. So it’s possibly a three-piece on the recording. Maybe the saxophonist was around, but we’d probably booted him out. The bassist is definitely there. There is actually a photo of this gig, but it’s not very clear and you can hardly see Roger”.
Sadly, the coolest Cornish sound of ’66 didn’t last: “Shortly after that gig I flogged the organ and bought a Stratocaster - a white one - Like Jimi’s”.
It was now 1967, and the Reaction was well and truly a power trio. Ricky Penrose: “The band transformed from being a six-piece back when I first joined with Roger Brokenshaw on vocals, to being a three-piece with just Mike Dudley, Roger Taylor and myself. It altered dramatically during that time, from soul, to what you’d now class as heavy metal, but it was called heavy rock back then. With just the three of us, we had to work a lot harder to make it work, which tends to improve us as musicians. Even with just three of us we made a wonderful sound”.
Despite their musical talent The Reaction were still covers bands. “We started playing Hendrix stuff, Cream and later Fleetwood Mac”, says Mike Dudley. “Roger was beat perfect for some of the early Hendrix stuff, and Mitch Mitchell used to be quite intricate on some of those. Keith Moon at that time he was hitting everything in sight, and Roger could do that, but it was less patterned. We never actually covered much Who stuff, though ‘My Generation’ maybe"
Being a close-knit unit, bound by their links to Truro School, it was inevitable that the group should disintegrate once its various members came to leave secondary education. “We all left school in July 1967”, says roadie Neil Battersby. “We went off to university or to work, and that was it as far as the band was concerned for term time”. Roger left Truro in October 1967 to enrol on a Dentistry course at the London School of Medicine. He didn’t return until the summer of 1968, when The Reaction staged a series of gigs dubbed the “Summer Coast Sound Experience”, which took place in a friend’s marquee on various beaches across the West Coast shoreline.
“I remember playing gigs on the beach”, says Ricky Penrose. “The life savers took us across in a jeep. Sand used to get in all the equipment. It was bloody awful”.
“We played on a beach”, recalls Mike Dudley, “with power running 200 yards on a single cable from a farmhouse somewhere, completely unearthed, completely unsafe, all from a generator with it’s associated hum. And it rained a lot that summer! … We did quite a few gigs, got a few hundred people into the marquee and had a lot of fun. It was a captive audience if we went to somewhere like Perrenporth – people had nothing else to do”.
“There’s a wonderful photo”, adds Mike, “of us playing in a marquee, labelled ‘A disastrous booking in a thunderstorm at Trevellas Port.’ Which was close to St. Agnes where I lived. That was September 1968, and it features me wearing disgusting floral flares. We never got very psychedelic. We had a homemade light show with oil-and-water bubbles swirling around, but that was it”. Ricky Penrose agrees: “Yeah, we had dreadful flowery trousers. The worst thing about them was the look you got when you stopped for petrol”.
Rumours persist to this day that one of the Summer Coast Sound Experience gigs was taped: “Not by me”, says Neil Battersby, “and if it was on the beach….” Mike Dudley is more certain: “There were two or three other tapes made from time to time, but they seem to have got lost. Not only was there a tape made of the Summer Cost Sound Experience, but there was an occasion when the Truro Tape Recorder Club asked us to come along and do two or three numbers. They had professional machines and from memory we did Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” and a couple of Hendrix tracks like “Fire”, “Foxy Lady”, or possibly “The Wind Cries Mary”, “Hey Joe”, or “Can You See Me”.
“Certainly one of the first two, because we always did those, and if we were experimenting, it would have been the others. That would have been just the three of us, with Roger singing and Ricky Penrose on bass. I remember those tapes. They were very good quality. In fact they were the best tapes we ever made. Mitch Mitchell’s drumming is pretty good on the original records, and Roger had them down to a drum beat, we were supposed to get copies of them at the time, but I never did, and I don’t think that Roger did either”.
The Summer Coast Sound Experience was The Reaction’s swansong. In the autumn of 1968, Roger Taylor finally left Truro and returned to his dentistry studies for a new life – and a new band, Smile – in London.
Ricky Penrose had already drifted away from the trio, anyway; “I was married, and the band was working virtually every night. I’d been playing in bands since I was eleven years old, and it was getting too much. When Roger went to dental school, that was the end of it…”. A bassist from Falmouth, Rick Thorning, took Penrose’s place for a while, and after the band finally dissolved, and Roger Taylor made the occasional return trip with Smile, Thorning and Dudley would sometimes join Roger, Brian May and Tim Staffell on stage. “We did a few shows with them”, says Mike, “but we weren’t up to the standard as the rest of the guys in that band. In the meantime, I played in a ten-piece soul outfit”.