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Holmes Music is still going strong 50 years on
6:00pm Tuesday 12th February 2013 in News
AS a successful driving school owner who had instructed thousands of rookie motorists in the confounding arts of navigating the roads and roundabouts of Swindon, John Holmes’ life took an unexpected turn when a friend popped in to ask a favour.
“I’ve got an old violin and clarinet I’m trying to sell. Would you mind displaying them in your motoring school window for me?” A talented musician and stalwart of the local ballroom dance scene, John happily agreed. What got him thinking, though, was how promptly the well-worn instruments were snapped up. “There must be a lot of people in Swindon keen to play music,” he reasoned. So as a sideline John began acquiring second-hand guitars, drums, cellos, flutes, trumpets and whatever else he could find to sell from the modest Morse Street premises of The Safe Drive School of Motoring.
The instruments vanished almost as quickly as he could lay his hands on them. Eventually, the driving school became a dot on his rear view mirror as John built up an impressive and well-known music business… with a little help from The Beatles. “The timing couldn’t have been better when I started,” he says today. “It was the early Sixties and the beat boom had arrived. That was a big factor. The Beatles were happening. Everyone wanted to be in a band. We were there to provide them with whatever instruments they wanted to play.” This year Holmes Music celebrates its golden anniversary after 50 years of supplying anything from nose flutes and zithers to mighty Hammond organs and hi-tech keyboards that verge on the futuristic to musically-minded Swindon folk.
The enterprise, which includes tuition, has also enabled thousands of people to get to grips with the often bewildering knack of conjuring music from a piano, saxophone or guitar. Holmes Music occupies spacious premises in Faringdon Road which is an Aladdin’s Cave of mouth-watering treasures for both aspiring and proficient musicians. Dozens of shiny electric guitars hang from the walls while gleaming drum kits – all demanding to be thumped with vigour – occupy another corner.
And if you fancy trying your hand at didgeridoo – which predictably enough are nowadays made in China – then the Holmes team will dutifully oblige. One instrument though, has a special place in John’s heart.
He says: “I was six when I was given an accordion; it was either a birthday or Christmas present. I really loved it and pretty much took to it straight away. That’s when music began for me. It helped shape my life.” John was three when his parents Bert and Edith moved to Wroughton from Romford in 1939 so his dad could work at an ammunitions factory, Marine Mountings. He grew up in the town centre and Rod-bourne areas, attending the still standing Sanford Street School. Over the years he became an adroit accordionist, eventually fronting the Johnnie Holmes Dance Band whose appearances lured revellers to long gone local venues such as The Empire and The Playhouse.
Career-wise, John was an electrician working for family-run radio/TV shops such as Teasdale and Jones, and Holmes and Lucas (no relation). He was sacked once after claiming sickness in order to play a gig. “Unfortunately, my boss and his family were in the audience.”
National Service landed John in Egypt during early to mid-Fifties where local insurgents lobbed home-made bombs at British soldiers drinking tea in their tents. John’s keenest memories, though, are of forming a band with Arab musicians. Back in Swindon he worked for a company called Warnes in Commercial Road, fitting radios into cars. It became apparent that motoring was a booming industry so he formed a driving school.
“I instructed thousands of people. Even now I get people coming up to me saying ‘you taught me how to drive.’” Music, though, was the real driving force.
“It was always in the back of my mind that I would in some way be involved with music in a full-time capacity.”
It was in 1963 when a pal with a couple of instruments to sell unwittingly changed John’s life. The school of motoring moniker in Morse Street was soon emblazoned with a second sign – “Swindon Music Centre.”
He says: “It really took off. Second-hand equipment like guitars, saxophones, drum kits and amplifiers were in big demand. They would go almost as soon as I could put them in the window or on the shelves.”
John found a London based dealer for second-hand gear and made weekly trips to a Charing Cross warehouse, setting off from Swindon at 4am. He also began stocking new instruments, including the super-cool distinctive sounding Hammond organ for which he gained the regional franchise. In 1966 he relocated the burgeoning music side of the business to premises at a former tobacconists shop at 11 Faringdon Road. “I was still interested in the driving school but the music was slowly taking over,” he says. Four years later John moved further along Faringdon Road to the much larger present location at 21-23, then the home of “tennis togs and swimwear” specialists Hope & Co.
Holmes Music boldly ventured into neighbouring regions such as Cheltenham, Bristol and Oxford, with other branches opening in and around Swindon. At one stage 76 people worked at 12 Holmes outlets.
But the 1993 recession dealt a shattering blow, forcing them to concentrate solely on Faringdon Road where eight people work today. John and wife Jean have three sons – Peter, Alan and Paul – and together they performed for many years as the Holmes Family Band, each proficient at various instruments.
Eighty this year, great grandfather John still plays solo gigs, hauling his trusty Technics GX7 electronic organ to charity functions.
He keeps an eye on the shop, which is the biggest of its kind in Swindon. As Sly Stone once sang, it’s a family affair, with Alan, 49, and Paul, 50, in charge while Jean, 78, helps out in a number of capacities.
“I still get a call every now and then saying ‘dad can you do a delivery for us?’ So I’m a delivery boy too,” he says.
Over half-a-century Holmes Music has constantly adapted to the mind-boggling technical advances in musical instruments when portable keyboards can replicate full-blown orchestras. And as a proudly independent store, they face an ongoing threat from the internet. But John reckons they’ll see it off. “We provide so much more than internet sellers. We have a really good after sales service; we repair instruments and teach people how to play them. Everyone in the shop really knows their stuff, too.”
Can he see Holmes Music still around in 2063? “Oh yes, I believe so. It’s my dream anyway. It’s my legacy to my children and grandchildren.”