My birthday is in mid September, so I spent 3 years at Peartree Infants School, staying back an extra year to ensure I gave the other kids a good head start. Two years under the tutelage of Mrs Hart, my first and one of my all time favourite teachers, followed by a year with Mrs Smy and I was primed and ready for the jump to the big league. Peartree Spring Junior School.
My sister was in 4th year when I joined Peartree Junior School in September 1975. She was in Mr Braithwaite (Snr)’s class and was, as far as I remember, one of his favourites. Whether this was how she managed to wangle a slot in the school choir or not is a matter for long and deep debate. Suffice to say that my dear sister, though beautiful, charming and blessed with many delightful traits and talents, is in no way gifted in the vocal department. Imagine, if you dare, a wounded howler monkey being slowly squeezed under the wheels of a vintage Massey Ferguson tractor being driven by an asthmatic rhino with toothache, and you’re approaching the ballpark.
High pitched warbling in the choir
Whatever the cause of her inclusion, the simple fact that I had a big sister in the choir, for some reason made Miss McCartney and Mrs Knight believe I might have what it took. One Friday afternoon, late in my first term, I was invited to go along to choir practice for a try out.
I can’t remember too much detail about those early sessions, but I must have been ok because I remained, with my close friend and partner in high pitched warblings, Gary Hall, in the school choir for the next 4 wonderful years.
The great beauty of this position was that we spent the last hour or so of every Friday afternoon in the dining room singing away to such great children’s classics as Icicle Joe the Eskimo, Kalinka and Pretty Vacant by the Sex Pistols, while our classmates got to do evil maths problems or incomprehensible comprehension. I may possibly have misremembered that last bit about the Sex Pistols.
Anyway, there I was, usually elbowing my way front and centre to sing at school prizegivings, Christmas carol concerts, harvest festivals and any other event from the annual reading competition to the hatching of a new school peacock.
The choir’s big break
Then, one day, we got news that local entertainer, maestro of many a kids’ Christmas party, legendary joke shop owner and, yes, TV personality, Jack Mayes was looking for a school choir to join his new recording project.
Well, you can imagine the buzz.
We set about recording a song to submit to the selection committee, a kind of early 70’s X-Factor audition; only with clear talent, pudding basin haircuts and flares. We waited to hear if we’d be chosen.
Some weeks or maybe months later we got the nod as it was decided that Peartree was the only school with the right quality, talent and ability to equal the challenge. We were, to say the least, well chuffed. There followed several months of hard training, lyric learning and pitch perfecting.
The 30 odd kids that made up the regular school choir (those of us with the little enamelled brass badges which read ‘Choir’) couldn’t, on our own, make the big Phil Spector style ‘Wall of Sound’ that was required for the cut. So open auditions were held in which anyone with a voice was allowed to take part.
Sadly, my sister had gone on to greater things by this time and was now delighting the teachers at Barnwell Secondary School with her note perfect renditions of Germ Free Adolescent by X-Ray Spex and Sid Vicious’ version of My Way; so was alas unavailable.
Instead, those of us smug enough to have already been accepted into the choir’s inner circle could sit back and giggle pathetically as Mrs Knight filtered out those newbies known as ‘growlers’ and those who simply couldn’t be heard above the sound of 200 snotty, smirking, pitiless kids. Eventually, the task was complete and the final party of 150 was selected for the recording.
A day at the recording studios
Then one day a fleet of coaches arrived at the school to take us down the smoke. The Grape Vine recording studios in London if my memory serves correctly, which after 35 years, it probably doesn’t.
The main man, Jack Mayes sans Hairy Harry puppet had been in the previous day and recorded his lead vocal tracks. All we had to do was to lay down our backing vocals. 150 kids, one day, a whole bunch of songs. Easy.
The professionalism of the Peartree team, teachers and kids alike, was excellent and paid dividends throughout the day. After a quick run through to warm up, we managed to cut almost all of the songs on the first take. Puff the Magic Dragon, Yellow Submarine, I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing, the hits were stacking up.
I was delighted to be one of a group of 5 choir regulars to be chosen to sing the middle verse of the Cat Stevens classic ‘Morning Has Broken’. That was the highlight of my recording career right there. The heady pinnacle of success.
After a tray or two of small, triangular sandwiches, the odd Mars bar and some of those funny little drinks in the corrugated plastic pots that always left you more thirsty after you’d drunk them than before you started; we finished the last of the songs and piled onto the coaches for the ride back to school.
The promotional tour was under way and we spent 6 weeks travelling the country playing to packed audiences at venues as diverse as The Glasgow Apollo, The Hammersmith Odeon and The Reading Festival. That bit may not really have happened. It was a long time ago so the memories are somewhat sketchy.
We had a photographer from the local paper arrive with a very tall ladder to take photos so we would be lauded in the local press. There I am, in the photo below, front row, third from the left, huge checked Rupert Bear type flared trousers and Beatles haircut. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as they say.
Orders for the LP flooded in. My mum and Grandma both ordered a copy, such was the demand. The cover art was revealed as a brilliant painting by the wonderful Mrs Whale and a couple of students, depicting the Pied Piper of Hamlyn leading a group of young children in and out, appropriately, of the pear trees presumably to some dark, nefarious end that it’s probably best not to contemplate too deeply.
An album on the turntable
Eventually the day long expected arrived. We received our copies and rushed home to play them on the Ferguson Studio 6 music centre. To say that we were amazed at the production of the album is a drastic understatement. The quality of the mix was superb, the synthesised effects on Yellow Submarine which made us sound like we were singing under water were epic.
My Mum and my Grandma insisted that they could hear me clearly above the 149 other kids, easily identifiable by my quartzlike, angelic intonation.
Despite 35 subsequent years of life experience which has honed a cynical edge to my social perspective, I remember with great fondness the wonderful years I spent at Peartree School. Mr Anstock’s firm captaincy, which set the tone of the place, and forged the school motto ‘We Aim at the Stars’ firmly into our subconcious minds; and the brilliant teachers, Mrs Whale, Mr Braithwaites (Snr and Jnr), Miss McCartney, Mr Deakin, Mrs Knight, and all the other talented, special people who acted as such excellent role models and set the standard for us to follow in later life.
All wonderful stuff and fantastic, if occasionally imagined, deranged and embellished memories. The record was later re-released on CD and will hopefully one day make it onto MP3 for the iTunes generation to cherish and enjoy.
Gorbless the good people of Peartree School, and thanks for giving me and generations of Stevenage kids the best possible start in life.
And hats off to the legendary Mr Jack Mayes without whom none of this would have been remotely possible.