Alan Robert Gordon Clayson, composer, performance artist and author, born Dover, Kent, England on Thursday 3rd May 1951
Melody Maker decided in 1977 that 'Alan Clayson occupies a premier position on rock's Lunatic Fringe' in the light of the onstage impact of Clayson and his backing Argonauts. However, during a continuing if erratic career as a performer, composer and recording artist, Clayson became known too as a writer via articles for such disparate journals as Record Collector, The Guardian, Mojo, Sunday Times, Mediaeval World, Ugly Things, Rhythm, Guitar & Bass, Vintage Rock, Hello! and The Independent, and as author of over thirty books, among them 1994’s Backbeat film tie-in (Number 13 in Sunday Times list, Number Six in Sunday Telegraph paperback list), Beat Merchants (Number Nine in Mojo chart, 1996), and an authorised biography of The Yardbirds (Number One in Mojo chart, 2002). There were also an official history of The Troggs - and Death Discs, also the subject of a programme Clayson scripted and hosted on national radio ('Clayson's show is as wacky as anything else you will hear on BBC Radio Two' - The Guardian). A 2002 tome concerning modern classical composer Edgard Varèse, Frank Zappa's boyhood hero, led to Zappa’s widow appointing Clayson to pen a life of her late husband.
The British concert debut by Zappa’s Mothers of Invention in 1967 had proved pivotal in informing not so much Clayson’s ‘artistic direction' as an attitude about presentation. An earlier indicator of future direction was his rôle as 'Ham' in a presentation of Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde opera at Guildford Cathedral in 1964 when Clayson was studying at a grammar school local to Fleet, Hampshire where his father was an auctioneer.
The eldest of four siblings, Clayson’s was a troubled childhood centred on the Church. Moreover, despite his Noye’s Fludde renown, he was not encouraged to consider showbusiness as a career. Thus, after leaving school in 1968, he began a business studies course at Farnborough Technical College, during which time he edited its student magazine and contributed three articles to the ‘Schoolkids’ edition of Oz, the focus of the longest obscenity trial in history.
A happier period at Berkshire College of Education from 1971 to 1975 and then living la vie bohème in Reading’s Cemetery Junction district embraced singing with Turnpike, a folk-rock quintet, who acquired only the merest renown in flashback when a Clayson opus, ‘The Rake’s Progress’, was placed at Number 28 in a chart devised by rock periodical Zigzag.
As an escape valve from earnest Turnpike, Clayson had created Billy and the Conquerors to approximate items from a record collection that had grown through an obsessive search for artefacts from musical eras as far back as the 1920s. 'I can honestly say that I've never seen anything like it in my life' gasped a Wokingham Times newshound after an eighteen-piece Billy and the Conquerors played the town's Rock Club.
Next was a sojourn in the string section of The Portsmouth Sinfonia and, simultaneously, the assembly of Average Joe and the Men in the Street, who absorbed much of the Conquerors' ramshackle grandeur - as did Clayson and the Argonauts, the more enduring entity that followed.
Weeks after an incident that had concluded with Clayson and the Argonauts being hustled out of one Berkshire venue at gunpoint, the group semi-gatecrashed a bill of pre-punk fare at Guildford Civic Hall in 1976. A glowing New Musical Express review of their performance brought them to the attention of Allan Jones, awaiting his destiny as editor of Melody Maker, who attended their London debut at the 100 Club on 9 January 1977. His enthusiastic and persistent coverage - which included a full-page interview with Clayson - prompted a Radio One In Concert spot, and a long run of headlining treks round Britain and Europe - always, it seemed, one week after Wreckless Eric and one week ahead of The Adverts.
En route, they were signed to Virgin Records for a one-shot single, an arrangement of Wild Man Fischer's 'The Taster', which rose to Number Three in Time Out's chart - though its B-side, Clayson’s ‘Landwaster’, spent a fortnight in the Belgian Top Twenty after a radio presenter in the Netherlands started spinning it by mistake. This epitomized a complicated and, frequently messy decade as a working band. Yet there are still folk today who'll tell you that Clayson and the Argonauts were nothing less than The Greatest Group Ever Formed. Nevertheless, fast comes the hour when fades the fairest flower - and the Clayson and the Argonauts’ saga climaxed seemingly with 1985's valedictory What A Difference A Decade Made album.
Yet, while this door was closing, one that had opened was the awakening of a calling dormant since the Oz affair. A Record Collector feature about The Dave Clark Five had come about after Clayson encountered a former member in a Camberwell music shop in 1981. More articles followed, and a parallel second career as an author left the runway in 1984 with his first book, Call Up The Groups!: The Golden Age Of British Beat 1962-1967. A portrayal of Clayson by the Western Morning News as the 'A.J.P. Taylor of the pop world' was supported by Q's 'his knowledge of the period is unparalleled and he's always unerringly accurate' - so much so that his advice was sought by TV and radio producers, and he assisted likewise in workshop sessions prior to the foundation of the Institute of Popular Music at the University of Liverpool.
He was also haunting the backstairs of pop as producer of the records of others, beginning with an EP by Welwyn Garden City's boss group, The Astronauts. More far-reaching, however, was a tenure on keyboards in Dave Berry and the Cruisers after its leader 'covered' a Clayson opus, 'On The Waterfront' from What A Difference A Decade Made. Later, Clayson composed and oversaw the lion's share of Berry's cause célèbre of an album, 1986’s Hostage To The Beat.
Because of Berry and Call Up The Groups!, Clayson became something of a 'face' on the Sounds 0f The Sixties circuit. Such networking paid off in sporadic engagements hammering piano as one of Screaming Lord Sutch's Savages, and as musical director (and bass guitarist) of a combo accompanying Twinkle, a grande dame of the 1960s nostalgia scene
More lucratively, he was scratching a living from his pen at an alarming pace. Books alone ranged from supermarket potboilers to Aspects 0f Elvis (with its excerpt from a projected novel, The Thistledown Flash) - and the only English language life of Jacques Brel. When this was updated in 2011, a presentation entitled Clayson Sings Chanson hit the road, triggering provincial media coverage, fulsome with phrases like ‘mesmerising’, ‘a man possessed’, ‘a wonderful evening by a master raconteur at the top of his game’.
Yet Clayson had long been prominent in an 'English chanson' scene traceable to a 1998 compilation Ne Me Quitte Pas: Brel Songs By... to which he contributed two tracks and served as a mainstay of the associated theatre show. He was also on 2002’s Nine Times Two: Contemporary English Chanson. Among rave reviews relevant to this discussion are ‘a powerfully-felt tribute” (Folk London), ‘Alan Clayson comes up trumps on a dark, doom-laden Lord Sutch tribute, ‘The Last Show On Earth’ (Record Collector), ‘Pete Atkin, Leon Rosselson and Robb Johnson do betray stylistic similarities, but Alan Clayson’s dissonant electric tribute to Screaming Lord Sutch is a different business altogether’ (Folk Roots) and ‘a bleak, way-out experience...moments of sheer hell...’ (Zabadak!).
A spin-off from 1995's Beat Merchants, a definitive study of the British beat boom, was another compilation that kicked off with 'The Man Of The Moment' (which rhymes 'Nashville Teens' with 'Swinging Blue Jeans') by Clayson and an ad-hoc resurrected Argonauts. Beat Merchants (and Nine Times Two) also contained ‘The Moonlight Skater’, an item composed initially for Dave Berry by Clayson, a gifted and distinctive lyricist, and Jim McCarty of The Yardbirds. This was to be revived by New Age outfit Stairway, Dave Berry and Jane Relf (ex-Renaissance).
This was one of many artistic diversions around the turn of the decade, but Clayson returned to stage centre as a solo attraction with a stage act that defied succinct description - and the delivery of 'more than a performance, an experience' (New York Village Voice). 'Mr. Clayson's last appearance in the north-east is still talked about,’ wrote The Beat Goes On, 'and, in the words of the promoter concerned, "caused extreme audience reaction".' 'It is difficult to explain to the uninitiated quite what to expect,' added The Independent - which also described Clayson as 'one of the more extraordinary figures to emerge from rock 'n' roll’.
Commensurate with this were tours with Denny Laine and Mungo Jerry, Moreover, during four visits to the United States - ostensibly to plug his books - rather than dry, writer-ish lectures at this convention hall or that exposition centre, Clayson plunged into excesses that occurred in the knowledge that he was unlikely to see any of these people again - or was he?
Within days of shaking off jet-lag back in England the first time in 1992, Clayson received a package from a coterie of ladies of Minnesota who'd been among the crowd flocking round him like friendly if over-attentive wolfhounds in the aftermath of an extravaganza in Chicago, and had each bought What A Difference A Decade Made. As well as a long letter, they'd sent a sweatshirt with his image and the words Claysonfest '92 printed on the front. Apparently, Alan Clayson now had an American fan club.
The members were twitchy with anticipation in the weeks leading up to the issue of Soirée, a Clayson album cast adrift on the CD oceans in 1997. Eight years later, a Clayson and the Argonauts double-CD retrospective, Sunset On A Legend, was issued, triggering an expedient reformation of the group for a belated 'farewell performance', the first of very many. ‘Alan Clayson and the Argonauts were one of rock's most glorious and enjoyable follies’, gasped a Rock 'N' Reel (RNR) reviewer, ‘and somewhere there is a parallel universe where they are bigger than the Beatles’.
A ‘tribute band’ to themselves, the group was still very much alive in 2009 when a DVD, Aetheria: Alan Clayson And The Argonauts In Concert, was issued - and in 2012 when another Clayson solo offering, One Dover Soul - produced by Wreckless Eric - was a critical success.
This Cannot Go On…, the first non-compilation CD by Alan Clayson and the Argonauts for over three decades was unleashed in autumn 2017.
Finally, literary flesh will be veiled on this basic account when Alan Clayson has completed his autobiography - with the working title, Nut Rocker - a necessary exorcism of personal and professional ghosts that has amounted to not so much closure as expanded interval notes on an on-going artistic voyage that only death will anchor.