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Willie Austen of Petworth

Willie Austen

Published on 4th December 2015


I was born in Gottingen, Germany, in 1950. My father was posted there after the war. He served in the army for 22 years, and walked with a limp from shrapnel in his leg.

I came to England when I was five. I don't have any memories of my time there but I'm told I spoke fluent German. I wish that I'd gone back when I was seven or eight to refresh my language skills!

We moved to be close to mother's family, the Allfreys, who were farmers in Kirdford. My grandfather on my father's side was a butcher in Billingshurst, known as 'Titch' Austen. The Allfreys were a very musical family and played all manner of instruments. My father's family were not musical. The only music my dad liked was brass bands.

At junior school, I learnt the violin. The teacher told my mum that I had a talent for it so they bought me a violin and I took some lessons. But then my teacher left the country, so I stopped playing. Before long, I was standing on a biscuit tin, miming with a tennis racket in front of the mirror, pretending to be Hank Marvin!

The first single that I bought was Poetry in Motion by Johnny Tillotson (1960). There was a lot going on as rock 'n' roll had been born and it changed music. I was listening to all of these new sounds, and I really did think I was going to be a rock 'n' roll star. When I was 14, I bought my first guitar and played an instrumental song called Pipeline (The Chantays, 1963) at a school concert. I was very shy and the guitar gave me the chance to be someone different.

I was listening to some of the old crooners, like Matt Monro, and then the likes of Cliff Richard and The Shadows, and Elvis Presley of course, took over, which I loved. I used to strut around Kirdford in my skin tight jeans and brand-new Chelsea boots singing 'Just Like Eddie' (Heinz, 1963).

My first proper gig was at The Cricketers Arms in Wisborough Green. We were about 15 and walked to the pub with guitars on our backs. The band was Dave Saunders, whose parents owned The Cricketers, bassist Barry Boxall, and Geoff Cooper on rhythm guitar. We were called Dolomon's Mind and were really a teenybopper band. A local farmer called Keith Grimwood agreed to be our manager and organised some gigs for us. At the time, I was an apprentice carpenter on about £3 a week, so we used the gig money to buy sound equipment.

We played village halls in places like Loxwood and Alfold. I wrote five or six original songs and the rest of our set was covers of pop songs by the likes of The Beatles, The Equals and the early soul greats. We weren't very good but we had good harmonies. At every job I had after school, I said "I won't be here long as I'm going to be a rock 'n' roll star!" I saw things like carpentry as menial jobs and it wasn't until I was about 20 that I started to realise that wouldn't necessarily be the case.

The band fizzled out, and by then bands like Led Zeppelin had broken through to change music all over again. I was really into that, so put a band together called Igneous Strata, playing original music. Another band called Peppermint Breeze had split up and the rhythm guitarist, drummer and bass player joined me instead. We were
playing heavy rock and thought we were going to be the next Led Zeppelin.

We played at some big venues. At Slough University, we played to 2,000 people when we supported East of Eden. Just before the gig, our van failed its MOT so we got a lift! We had been due to play first, but we were an hour late, so a group called Universe played before us. We were pretty nervous but went down really well. I remember walking offstage with a broken string, feeling a bit breathless, and this guy came running over shouting "the crowd want you back on!" It was fantastic for us to have that kind of reception and that is one of the best gigs I ever played.

We did think we were going to get signed and had a few close calls, but it never went anywhere. We were young and didn't quite know how to put everything together properly. We needed somebody to arrange our music and tell us the best way forward.

Igneous Strata supported some very big bands. We played with Fleetwood Mac at Guildford Civic Hall, but with a band like that all of the fans stay in the bar whilst the support band is playing. In truth, it was a bit of a nothing gig for us. We also supported Genesis before they took off. That was a good gig. I didn't know much about Genesis before that night, but we couldn't help but be impressed; they were incredible musicians.

There are bands out there that make other bands want to give up! I was pretty depressed the night we supported
Wishbone Ash. They had this incredible three guitar line-up and when I saw them, I thought 'they are a hundred yards ahead of us!' Eventually, I realised that I wasn't going to be a rock 'n' roll star and perhaps should take work more seriously. Not that I ever did!

The band petered out, although the dream had been bashed about a bit by the likes of Wishbone Ash and Genesis! There is a difference between good bands and those who make it to the very top, but there are different ways of getting there. Some people are great salesmen, who might not be brilliant musicians but they can
convince somebody else that they are. Others, like Led Zeppelin, get there on natural talent alone.

I was thinking about packing in music, but some people said that I should just play as a solo act down the pub, playing covers, which I hadn't done since my teenybopper days. The first time I performed alone as at The Frog Pond in Worthing. It is very different not having a band behind you!

I played in a function band with Nick McGurk, who ran a recording studio called Sonoptics Productions in Billingshurst. A revered session guitarist called Big Jim Sullivan played all of the library music and Nick kept telling him to watch one of my gigs. One night, I was playing at The Rising Sun in Nutbourne, and Big Jim was there. He asked to play a few songs and we just clicked straight away. He had enjoyed the good times playing in Tom Jones' band in Las Vegas and performing with James Last but I think he'd become a bit disillusioned. Playing that night took him back to his youth, singing songs by the likes of Marty Wilde and the Wilde Cats.

That led to us playing prolifically on the pub circuit together for about ten years. We filled up the biggest pubs in Sussex, really because people wanted to see Jim.

Through Big Jim, I met (Led Zeppelin guitarist) Jimmy Page. In his early musical career, Big Jim was a massive session guitarist and knew Jimmy well. We were playing at a biker's pub when Jim said "Willie, I want you to meet an old mate of mine." It was Jimmy Page, and he played with us. He actually didn't look well, but when Jimmy started playing you could hear a pin drop! He must have enjoyed himself because he wanted to carry on even after the landlord brought the show to an end.

It's a little bit self-congratulating when you start namedropping, but I was able to meet Paul McCartney too. He owned the publishing rights to Buddy Holly's songs and was putting together a promotional album of Buddy Holly songs. I was in the band, again thanks to Jim, who was there too, with the likes of Leo Sayer and Chrissie Hynde singing. Gary Glitter was there, so it was a while ago! I remember Jim played a lovely solo on True Love Ways and  everybody stood up and applauded. Jim and I had a lot of happy years during the 1990s.

Jim and I did have a fall out. He was back into playing again and wanted to be the 'guitarist's guitarist.' I don't mean that in an unkind way. He was a special musician (Jim Sullivan passed away in 2012) and doing the pub circuit with me was perhaps not all he wanted to achieve. He started playing jazz with the likes of Herbie
Flowers, Derek Austin and Malcolm Mortimer, and decided that was the road he wanted to take.

For several months, I was looking around for someone with a similar style. Some guitarists were very good in a
certain style, like blues or rock, but I cover a bit of everything. That is why I am known as Jukebox Willie. I was
playing at The Rose in June in Hayling Island when the landlord told me about Paul Stenton, who was only 18 or 19. I said "he won't want to do what I do. He wasn't born when this music was around!" But he turned up for a gig wearing purple nail varnish, with long hair in a ponytail. He started playing and I knew immediately that, musically speaking, he could cover anything. It is not just about playing though - it is having the right attitude – and Paul has that.

Big Jim came to watch me some years later. He said: "You don't need me anymore. I used to be able to play like how that young guy plays!" That was very generous of him to say.

I find that there will be a particular crowd that will come to a lot of gigs, and then gradually that will fizzle out and a new crowd will replace them. One of the downsides of drink-driving laws though is that pubs don't take as much money from gig nights. They can be full, but people will be sat there with a pint that lasts them all night. It is great to have support, but I wish people would support the pubs a little more.

I head out to France every year, playing six or seven gigs, and that's always great fun. My wife Denise and I also go to The Maldives and I always take my guitar. One year, I took it to practice a song for a friend's wedding. When I stepped off the seaplane, the manageress of the resort saw the guitar and asked me to perform in the bar that night. I've been playing in The Maldives ever since! I'm not sure if everybody on the island wants me to, but on the whole people seem up for a bit of fun.

One night in The Maldives, a couple approached me and asked if I would visit them in Uganda to perform. I thought, 'Well, I won't hear from them again.' But soon after, they paid for my flights and accommodation to play at a corporate event in Africa!

I was in France many years ago, playing in a bar with an Echo Jumbo acoustic guitar, when a long-haired, moustached Argentinian called Jimmy approached me and said 'I have a guitar that you should play.' He opened his guitar case and pulled out an Ovation acoustic. I plugged it in and was amazed by the sound. We became very good friends and he came to watch me playing at a wine bar in The Bishopric. I pointed to his guitar and
announced 'I want one of these for my birthday!' My then wife, Claire, managed to find a guitar like it for me. I've had it ever since and as it was a gift from friends it became my favourite. Other guitars have come along, and some have probably been better, but this is my beast!

I am now married to Denise. She was a fan initially and is now my manager. I still love playing at pubs. People always ask 'Don't you get bored, playing the same songs every night?' But we don't. Every night is different as we have a massive repertoire. Of course you get nights where it seems a bit of a struggle, but it never feels like work to me.

I don't play lead guitar anymore. When I met gifted musicians, like Big Jim and Paul, I realised that it wouldn't matter how hard I tried, I would never be up to play like them. So I play rhythm guitar.

My day job is fencing. I worked for a firm called Juniper Fencing when I was young. I was useless back then as I still thought I was going to be famous, so I didn't take it seriously. But I did learn the basics and later started my own firm, Austen Fencing, in my mid-20s. My son James works with me. It is pretty full-on as I finish work, have a nap, and get ready to play in the evening. I don't go to bed much before 2am most nights.

I have three children who play music. My daughter Charlotte is a fine singer in a band called Lux Lisbon. James likes to play guitar and has performed with me at quite a few gigs. Ollie is very talented young man who plays the drums and guitar. He is a technician for a very successful band called Sigma and has been called on to play on several of their tracks.

I am still writing songs, although I do think that your best writing comes in those early, naive years. I have also recently met with old band mates to re-record some of Igneous Strata's old songs, just for personal satisfaction. I was quite surprised how good they were!

How long will I keep playing for? I don't know, but I want to go out the same way as Tommy Cooper did; on stage.

Willie's gig guide is posted on his website at www.willieausten.com