It was 1985 and I was happily burning taxpayers money at Maidstone College of Art, cackling as all those tenners went up in smoke in the name of long, dull video pieces about what it was like being me. I had a friend in the neighbouring town of Chatham, a fellow student who happened to be singer and guitarist in a band called Apricot Brigade. The Medway towns, of which Chatham was but one, had quite a lively music scene which had produced, most famously, The Milkshakes, The Mighty Caesars, and The Dentists. Apricot Brigade never put out a record or achieved the fame of those aforementioned, but they played a lot of gigs and were relatively popular on the local circuit for a time. I saw them enough to be able to hum at least a few of the songs even now, thirty years later; and with hindsight, I'd say they sounded oddly like Suede, or at least Suede trying hard to be the Swans; maybe...
Alun Jones was their drummer, and the member of the band whom I initially found the most intimidating. He was taller than me, and his face seemed suited to brooding disapproval, and he said very little. I eventually got to know him moderately better and to appreciate that his face had simply formed that way; and also that he was a man of few words not because, as it sometimes appeared, they'd all become lodged in his throat like a thousand furiously red-faced colonels all attempting to exit the drawing room at the same time, but simply due to his being a quiet, reflective soul - someone not given to speech when he had nothing he wanted to say. Nevertheless, initially I didn't quite know what to make of him.
This ceased to be an issue when he left the band and joined The Dentists, at first filling in on the recording of their Down and Out in Paris and Chatham EP before signing up full time, as I remember. I liked The Dentists, but I was never much of a gig goer, and what few gigs I attended were usually snivelling nobodies playing to an audience of three in some pub toilet, so I didn't really see Alun around for a while. Furthermore, I'd ended up as his replacement when Apricot Brigade rebranded themselves as Envy, and I was brought in to play keyboard and press the go button on a TR606 drum machine. I also repeatedly hit a car door with a hammer during one song performed before a paying audience in a pathetic attempt to hitch the Envy caravan to the then lucrative Test Department bandwagon, but the less said about that the better. I think Alun may have been in the audience during one of these gigs, assuming I recall correctly that we played live more than once, but I had the impression that I was resented, that I had somehow ousted him from the group, despite the obvious fact that he was now pounding the triangle for an altogether more listenable combo who actually put out records every once in a while, and which people wanted to hear.
|Alun and Mick of The Dentists.|
The three years of my degree course at Maidstone College of Art came to an end in 1987, and so I moved to Chatham because the town had a less depressing dole office. As a man of leisure, freed from the rigorous demands of turning up to mumble something into a video camera every few weeks, I signed on and discovered Gruts, a café situated on the border of Chatham and Rochester run by a bloke named Gerald and his girlfriend, who I'm fairly certain was called Caroline. I took to spending long afternoons in Gruts, drinking tea, eating toasted ham and cheese sandwiches, contemplating things which no longer matter and talking rubbish with other regulars. The roster of visitors included Billy Childish, Bill Lewis, Tim Webster, and an assortment of other Medway musicians and artists, so the standard of rubbish was high; and amongst this group was Alun Jones.
He would turn up in his old man's flat cap, buy a tea, and settle in for a couple of hours, and I soon came to realise that his fearsome demeanour had happened mainly in my imagination, wrongly interpreted from the previously mentioned habit of keeping his mouth shut when he had nothing to say in conjunction with the eyebrows of a more stern personality. Whilst we didn't exactly become close friends, I certainly grew to appreciate both his presence and his sharp sense of humour. I also liked that he was not well-disposed towards the dispensation of bullshit and was accordingly and refreshingly honest.
'What I'm trying to say with my paintings,' I probably tried to explain at some point before being cut off with a withering glare.
'What I'm trying to explain with my paintings, Sergeant Major,' he would parrot with acid sarcasm before abruptly transforming into the Windsor Davies character from It Ain't Half Hot, Mum. 'Shut up!!!'
There's probably not much joy to be had from explaining the hilarity which dare speak its name only providing you were actually there, but that is - for better or worse - mainly what I remember about Alun, that he was quiet without seeming necessarily retiring, and very, very funny.
As the collected taxpayers of the British Isles drafted me into something called Job Club, a joyless institution inspired by the idea that I shouldn't stay on the dole indefinitely, I would spend each morning half-heartedly scouring classified adverts in the company of fellow scroungers and then, having fired off my daily quota of ten job applications to companies I knew would never hire me in a million years, I would head for Gruts. Alun seemed to be there most afternoons, and there was always something pleasurable about filling him in on the details of that morning's session.
He would politely enquire as to whether I had managed to secure a place to play in the sandpit that day, or he would envision new back to work campaigns to which we might soon be subjected by the DHSS.
'Job Bus™ is coming to your area,' he once chirped with a faraway look in his eyes, 'bringing jobs to suit young and old alike.'
I would relate the latest news of a fellow Job Club attendee who resembled Ronnie Corbett and was almost certainly called Dave. Dave had told me of a book purchased for his young child in which conflicted groups of black elephants and white elephants were somehow blended to become grey elephants as a result of getting all mixed up during either a fight or the spin cycle, thus presenting a portentous if slightly useless lesson about racism. This sort of ethical overcompensation would usually prompt Alun to channel either Windsor Davies or Sexton Ming's version of Olly Reed, not so much in response to political correctness gone mad, but in response to something that was quite obviously just bollocks.
Gruts closed in 1989 or thereabouts, and I moved away from Chatham, and that was the last I saw of Alun Jones. It was also the last I heard of him until a few days ago when the following appeared on facebook from Dentists guitarist Bob Collins:
I'm really sorry to post this but we've had the tragic news that Alun Jones died on Thursday night after a fire in his flat in Gillingham. Alun was our drummer from 1986 to 1991 and we lost contact with him for many years after he left the band, although we saw him fleetingly in more recent times. But he was a big part of our lives back then and will always be in our thoughts. Our heads are just spinning at the moment.
It's strange, how death works. Off the top of my head I could name ten people with whom I've shared much closer friendship than with Alun Jones, and yet whose passing wouldn't merit more than a shrug and oh well. It's been nearly a quarter of a century since we spoke and yet I always liked to think that he was out there somewhere, still chuckling quietly to himself and pulling those incredulous faces whenever voices were raised in the general spirit of ludicrous bullshit. Now that his name has been unfortunately thrust to the forefront of my thoughts, I realise what a strong impression he left for someone I knew so briefly. Every time I hear The Smiths, even if just for a second, I tend to think of Alun; and I'm still tempted on an almost daily basis to counter preposterous claims by repeating them back to their couriers whilst addressing them as Mr. La-di-da Gunner Graham, but my Windsor Davies was never so good as Alun's rendition, and I now live in Texas where no-one would get the reference. I'd probably even forgotten where that came from until news of Alun's passing obliged me to think about such things. He cast a very long shadow for someone who said so little, if you'll pardon the slightly mismatched allusions.
With all the miserable buggers still walking around droning on an on about nothing at all and who will probably live forever, it seems particularly unfair when we lose one of the good ones.