Ely’s Forgotten Bands: The Approachable Pigeons

Image: John Glover and Lee Gillett

In 1982 Lee Gillett and John Glover formed a band – The Approachable Pigeons. Multi instrumentalist Lee had previously played in Herod’s Race, Wild Party Productions and other bands on the local scene. John had shouted for another local band, The Sokkets, and continued to write dodgy lyrics in his bedroom whilst listening to Elvis Costello and The Jam. John takes up the story:

The Pigeons weren’t a band, they were an idea

The Pigeons weren’t a band, they were an idea: conceived whilst sitting outside a pub in London. Lee and I had gone down for a couple of days to hawk his Wild Party video around the record companies and to drink as much as possible. As we sipped a beer in the sunshine, a pigeon strutted up and pecked at a discard crust by my feet. ‘That’s an approachable pigeon’ commented Lee. And that was the spark.

So, what do you do with an idea? Not much for a start. We were unbalanced, musically, as a duo. Lee’s contribution was to be drums, guitar, bass and equipment and mine was…er…some bad fen inflected vocals and some fourth form poetry which I scribbled into notebooks. I did, however, read the NME every week and was an expert on other ‘bands as ideas’. Our first foray onto the local music scene was when I composed, one drunken night, a teasing letter to the editor of the Ely Standard. I rambled on about a band rising from the ashes of another local band and included a few, I thought, hip references. It was enough to get us a mention in the next week’s paper. Publicity and not a note played. Strange what you do for kicks when you’re 19.

We won best adult act and, astonishingly, I won a fiver for best singer.

From there we progressed to practicing acoustic songs with me rasping out my poetry over Lee’s strumming. The first fruits were ‘Shinning Up The Wrong Pipe’ and ‘Kirk Douglas’s Chin’. We performed at the annual Little Downham Review for 3 nights to a stunned audience and shortly afterwards took part in the Littleport Talent Show, playing the same two songs. We won best adult act and, astonishingly, I won a fiver for best singer. It should be pointed out at this point that the only adult acts were us and a middle-aged woman who dressed like Penelope Keith in ‘The Good Life’ and warbled some Opera Lite shite. I hammered out ‘Shinning’ to a stunned crowd who appeared to think I was singing, ‘Shitting Up the Wrong Pipe’.

The only recorded evidence of the band at this stage was the (now legendary – for Lee & myself) ‘Wine Album’. My mum and dad had gone on holiday and left me at home. Dad was heavily into wine making at the time and had left me in charge of his brewery (our shed) – known as The Mucky Duck. My sister Sue and her then hubby, Mik had gone out for the night leaving us as very unprofessional baby sitters. Lee walked in with acoustic guitar and I struggled in with about 6 bottles of my dad’s finest red wine. Kid’s asleep – tape recorder ‘on’ – let’s go.

We taped about 30 minutes worth of stuff that evening. All classics – to drunks. Where is that tape?

Following the Downham Review, we were asked (asked!) to do a little spot at a Church ‘country barbecue’ in Bruce Smith’s barn. By then we were using Lee’s electronic drum, which made that annoying ‘Boing!’ noise, electric guitar and taped bass. The set now consisted of ‘The Pigeon Rap’, ‘The Day Charlie Bates’s Dog Had a Fit’, ‘Surrogate Harrowgate’ and the original two songs. Can’t remember what the audience thought but we had a whale of a time.

At this point Lee got hold of a 4 track recorder and we went into the studio (his bedroom) to record some tracks. I shouted on a couple, he did a couple of his own songs, an instrumental and we bunged on a ‘live’ song for good measure. Once again the Ely Standard was our publicity machine of choice and we received a decent review from ES staffer John Lewin.

The night The Pigeons played we supported Katrina & The Waves. Yup – we were walking on sunshine (a woooah hooo!).

In those days, Ely didn’t have the bars and clubs it does now. If you wanted a bop in Ely you had two places to go: The Rugby Club on a Friday or the occasional Saturday Night at The Maltings. Of course, if we’d wanted to we could have driven to Peterborough to one of the clubs dressed in shiny Burton’s jackets and ties or we could have caught the train to Cambridge and gone to Ronnell’s. But, as George Michael used to say, ‘are you a pub man or a club man?’ We went to Cambridge to watch bands, not to pay over the odds to get into a club. No, we went to the local hop. And that’s what the Rugby Club was like. Every Friday night, almost exactly the same 100 or so 17-25 year olds would turn up in dribs and drabs, some walking, some in taxis, from the Minster or the Cutter until, just before last admittance at 10pm, the place would be heaving. We loved it.

It was to the Rugby Club that the Pigeons next turned for a gig. They were trying to shake things up at that point by having the odd live act and the night The Pigeons played we supported Katrina & The Waves. Yup – we were walking on sunshine (a woooah hooo!). We had a word with Barry, the club manager, and set about some under whelming rehearsals in Little Downham. If memory serves me correctly, we did the same set as at the Barn Dance but added two female backing singers that were fashionable at the time. Everyone from Paul Young, Elvis Costello, The Style Council to Wham had backing singers – whether they needed them or not. Also, it was a way of attracting girls into Pigeon World. The gig came and went and I remember virtually nothing of it. The only evidence that the gig took place, and gave us a certain amount of pride, was a tape on which you could hear Cliff, the resident DJ, shouting ‘Ah ha ha ha!! That was the Approachable Pigeons…ohwa ha ha ha…next up…Katrina and The Waves’. Next thing we knew they were in the charts and winning the Eurovision Song Contest.

Perfectly aware of my limitations, I viewed myself as the band’s Andrew Ridgeley

I’d like to say that fevered rehearsals took place and my fingers developed calluses while learning to play the guitar. Nah – sod that. We decided to play covers and booked another gig at the Rugby Club and ran through the songs about 3 times. Remember – we were an idea. Ideas don’t practice much. The songs? ‘Blue Monday’! We drafted in a keyboard player (who, I think, ended up playing with Icehouse, who had a hit) to enable us to play that. Andy Clark came in on drums and Mark Pettifor on bass. Bugger Me – the idea was turning into a real band. We added a couple of Elvis Costello songs, some others and worked on about a 30 minute set. It was very strange, vocalising (I can never call it singing) in front of a band that had really started to cook on something resembling gas. Perfectly aware of my limitations, I viewed myself as the band’s Andrew Ridgeley (because Lee was the chubby, gay one ;o)

The crowd loved it. I had tried to perfect my ‘How does it feel? To treat me like you do…’ which wasn’t hard. Old Bernard from New Order can’t sing either, which was handy. I sang a verse and then went to get a pint in during the instrumental break. I thought that was quite cool at the time, walking to the bar, getting a drink and returning to the mike in time for, ‘…and I went down to the beach’. We’d cracked it. The keyboard player was excellent, Andy and Mark formed a solid rhythm section and Lee’s guitar playing was coming on in leaps and bounds. We decided to stretch things by working up the set into an hours worth of material and trying a ‘proper’ pay on the door gig at The Cutter.

Unfortunately, the keyboard player moved so we settled on the classic four piece and decided to go for an R & B/New Wave sound. Once more a few lacklustre rehearsals took place. They were usually just a token run through before a night in The Minster but we were getting into a groove now. For the first time I had to work hard – it’s not easy learning the lyrics to 20 songs in a few days. I sat in my bed-sit with my girlfriend, Hazel, gradually memorising such (very wordy) classics as ‘Down In The Tube Station at Midnight’ and ‘Watching The Detectives’. The big night arrived. We carried all the gear in, did a sound check and waited to the anticipated 3 men and their dogs to turn up. We shouldn’t have been so pessimistic – it was packed. Starved of live music, all our Rugby Club crowd showed up and various supporters of Lee’s other musical exploits. We rocked. By the time we rattled through a (word perfect!) ‘Tube Station’ we had lads po-going and throwing themselves all over the carpet of the Cutter function room. It was like The Cavern in 1961; the walls were sweating.

Unbeknown to me, this was to be almost the end of the big idea for me. After the exhilaration of The Cutter gig things went quiet. I spent more time in the bedsit with Hazel going through my etchings while Lee continued to write his own songs and knock around with Andy, the drummer. Chronologically speaking, I’m a bit vague as to what happened after that. There was an acapella performance at a Fun Day at the Paradise in which we were interviewed by Radio Cambridgeshire. Although, denying I was even there, apparently I am on a tape answering questions. I have no recollection of the day. By then, the idea was slipping out of my hands. Lee was inviting other honourary Pigeons to join in, and as I was not about most of the time (busy with more etchings) I was powerless to resist. These people didn’t know what the Idea even was! Yes – musical differences had arrived.

We were like John and Yoko watching a Lennon-less Beatles.

Things reached rock bottom when I heard on the grapevine that The Approachable Pigeons were doing a gig in Soham that Friday evening. I was on the point of changing my name to Pete Best at this news. I’d been edged out, forgotten, left to carry on courting. I assumed that they thought I’d given up the big idea for watching films in front of a two-bar electric fire in a shitty bed-sit in Ely. Well, yup. I suppose I had. I would have looked crap in leather trousers at Live Aid anyway.

Even though I was now ‘Jilted’ John I still went to Soham to the gig, Hazel on my arm. We were like John and Yoko watching a Lennon-less Beatles. Well, that’s how I imagined it. At least she didn’t want to put a bed in the recording studio. There wouldn’t have been any point as Lee’s bedroom was the studio.

Ok – this is Lee speaking and I`ll take over from Jilted John.

The Soham gig was a disaster in that The Colour Factory, who went on before the Pigeons, actually blew up the PA speakers

Indeed my bedroom was the studio and there was no room for deadwood. And so it was ruthlessly cut away as John was edged out of the picture. However, as it often the case, once the original figurehead and founding member had gone from the band it actually all went downhill quite quickly. The Soham gig was a disaster in that The Colour Factory, who went on before the Pigeons, actually blew up the PA speakers with their punky onslaught and we didn’t hit the stage until very late after emergency repairs were carried out. It seemed Ok once we actually started and our new set consisting of Gary Glitter standards as well as a sprinkling of new original songs seemed to go down well but the set was curtailed badly due to the problems with the PA.

After that I don’t remember doing anything else with the Pigeons apart from making one demo tape on our trusty portastudio, which this time was slated by the local media whereas our first one was praised. The quirkiness had gone – we had become just another boring guitar band with nothing to set us apart from the crowd – no unique selling point. What set out as just a wacky idea had become stale and “run of the mill‿ and the Approachable Pigeons flew off into the sunset.

‘Deadwood’ resumes the story –

To my delight, the speakers blew up and they had to get a tool kit out to fix them before they started to play. It was as I thought – my beautiful multi-coloured Rolls Royce of an idea had been taken over by hairy-arsed mechanics who wanted to practice and tune-up and suchlike. Me and Yoko left before they started. And that was it – The Pigeons were over.

Nowadays, me and Lee play golf together. But we’re not golfers. Oh no, it’s not like that when we play. Y’see golf isn’t a game. It’s an idea.

Approachable Pigeons Audio Highlights

This interview is circa 1985 and come from an outside broadcast by Radio Cambridgshire at an event at the Paradise Sports Centre.

[audio:http://www.elyonline.co.uk/downloads/appid.mp3]

This rough demo was recorded prior to the ‘Pigeons’ appearance at the 1983 Littleport Talent Contest.

[audio:http://www.elyonline.co.uk/downloads/kirk.mp3]

This demo of the track ‘Surrogate Harrowgate’ was recorded Lee’s Porta-Studio circa 1983/4.

[audio:http://www.elyonline.co.uk/downloads/SH.mp3]

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7 replies
  1. Jez Arnold
    Jez Arnold says:

    I’ve just read the potted history of The Pigeons with much amusement and indeed some nostalgia as I was the keyboard player who moved away (back home to Luton for a while) not long after the now legendary second Ely Rugby Club gig. For historical accuracy, I was never in Icehouse but did play for several years with Cambridge’s La Voix, and we never had a hit but did manage to cause a bit of a stir at one of the early Cambridge Rock Group Competitions.

    As fate would have it, not long before finding the Pigeons article online, I came across a tape of the Rugby Club gig. It’s rough and ready, as I imagine most of The Pigeons performances were, and brings a tear to my eye for more reasons than one. Songs included on the tape are Blue Monday, A Forest (The Cure), Rebel Rebel (Bowie), She’s Lost Control (Joy Division) and Why Don’t You Love Me Like You Used To Do (Hank Williams?).

    Unfortunately that was my one and only Pigeons performance, but one that I remember like it was only yesterday (is it really 20-something years ago?), and I have to say it’s a real shame that the Pigeons were never to live up to their obvious early potential.

    Any chance of a reunion gig at the Rugby Club? Count me in – as long as rehearsal is kept to a minimum…

  2. Mike Merrifield (Merri)
    Mike Merrifield (Merri) says:

    Bleedin nora, The Approachable Pigeons what a great band!! Sorry about blowing the P.A at the Soham gig.

    Merri (Color Factory)

    Great site by the way.

  3. Karl Bedingfield
    Karl Bedingfield says:

    Strange you should send in a comment Mike as John, Lee and myself were talking last Friday about writing an article on ‘Colour Factory’ for this very website.
    I have quite a few photos when you supported ‘The Pogues’ at Harlow.

    So if you have some history and a couple of songs to donate …

  4. Dave Wisbey
    Dave Wisbey says:

    Hi all………. you may be interested to know that i’ve put a color factory myspace site up with loadsa pictures and some hot rockin toons!!!!! Download and use whatever ya want. cheers and great site by the way!!

    Link: to website.

    Dave Wisbey (Local Celebrity!!!)

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