Big Blonde 12 String

In 1965, when I was working with Marty Wilde, we did a summer season at the Aquarium Theatre in Great Yarmouth, which was at the time a very popular holiday resort on the East Coast of England.    There were lots of theatres in Great Yarmouth in the 50’s and 60’s, and all through the summer the town was full of show business people, from comics to dancers, stooges and novelty acts, famous singers and actors, and in our case a thing called the Waltzing Waters, (I’ll leave it to you to work out what that was about). It was actually higher up the billing than the rest of the cast.

Joe Brown, a hero of mine and George Harrison’s, was at the Britannia Pier Theatre across the street from us, and sometimes between our exit off stage and the finale (“My kind of town, Great Yarmouth is my kind of town”) I would sneak over to the stage door entrance and watch Joe from the wings before scuttling back to the Aquarium.

I loved the weeks we spent there. I had my own room in a boarding house in the centre of town and a lovely landlady looking after me, and for the first time in my life I had some money in my pocket.

Top of the Bill at our show was Lonnie Donegan, who would close the show every night (Matinees Wednesday and Saturday), and I even stood in for his guitar player for a couple of days when he got ill. Like every other English kid of my age who played guitar, I knew most of Lonnie’s songs, which were mostly covers of American writers songs.

Lonnie had heard me playing guitar in the dressing room and he knew I wrote songs. It was then, against Marty’s advice, that I made perhaps the biggest professional mistake of my career, one that I will regret forever. Lonnie invited me to sign a publishing contract at the age of 18 that gave him and his partners, publishers David Platz and Howie Richmond, ownership of the copyrights of my songs, for the next eight years of my song writing. The contract was for lifetime of copyright, which means forever. I will never own the songs I wrote back then, from ’65 – ’73, and neither will my family or my children’s, children’s children.

I didn’t realise what a big mistake I had made until about 18 months later when, in the Moodies, we started to have success, and then I woke up to the cold facts and full realisation of what had happened.

I was not alone. Many other writers in the early 60’s signed a similar onerous contract and signed away the rights to their songs at the time, including Mike Pinder. But by 1967 contracts like that were never, used again, and rightly so.            Lonnie knew the value of ownership of copyright, I didn’t.

I saw Lonnie only a few times after signing – he had given me nothing in return. But I went to his lovely house in Wentworth one day in early 1966,(before I met Mike and the other Moody Blues for the first time in August 1966).

While I was waiting for him to appear, he shouted out to me to get a guitar out of the loft for him. When I found it and passed it down to Lonnie, who had turned up below me in his dressing gown, he asked what else was up there. I told him there was another guitar case gathering dust in the rafters and I brought it down and he said, “let’s have a look”!!

When I opened the case, which looked like it had been specially made for the guitar, it turned out to be big blonde 12 string acoustic in a very dilapidated and neglected state. I said to Lonnie that I was sure that I could fix it up again. He said to take it; he didn’t think he’d ever use it. I took it on up to town with me where I was doing a session, and then back to my home in Swindon.

I stripped it down, cleaned it up, put new strings on it and brought it back to life.

It wasn’t easy to play, with quite a wide neck that was a real handful but the sound was big and almost severe in its intensity.

After that, I kept it with me and started writing songs on it, in fact it can be heard first in all its glory on the single ‘Fly Me High’ and ‘Cities’.

All of the songs I wrote, and all the recordings made in the following two years were on that guitar, including of course ‘‘Days of Future Past’.

It was part of our early sound, and all the guys in the band respected it and acknowledged that guitars place on our recordings.

In early 1968 Graeme and I were sharing a flat in Leinster Gardens, Bayswater with our then girlfriends, and one day, when Graeme and I were out doing a gig, Lonnie’s guitar player came to the flat and asked to borrow the guitar. The girls said they supposed it would be OK, and it was gone.

I did ask for it back a couple of times because I loved it (and so did all of us in the group) but giving it back was never considered , neither was the return of the rights to my songs. Within a year of signing that publishing contract, we were hardly on speaking terms anyway because of the onerous nature of the contract.

A few years ago, some time after Lonnie Donnegan died, I was contacted by Sharon Donegan, Lonnie’s widow, and she told me she had a guitar that she had been told I always liked, a twelve string acoustic, and she asked would I like to own it again.

I finally bought it from her, at her own valuation, and Richard from Rocket Cargo went to collect it for me. It was waiting for me when I got home from a tour.

It’s been through a lot of changes in the last 40 odd years. It has been re-varnished and new machine heads added. It’s not really blonde anymore (like a lot of us) and some other changes have been made to it that are slowly revealing themselves to me as I get to know my old friend again.

It does seem, strangely, to be re-aligning itself again as I play it.

When I first started playing it, it would not come into tune. The tension was wrong somehow, but now, every time I pick it up it’s ready for me and it’s settling down in my hands once more.

Most guitarists wonder, if they have nice instruments, what will happen to their guitars after they have gone, as they surely will survive their owners. This one knows it’s back home.

I wrote a song on it.  It’s called “in Your Blue Eyes”, and it’s on the ‘Spirits Of The Western Sky’ album.