IT could have been Jailhouse Rock, maybe it was Rock Around The Clock, or perhaps even Blackboard Jungle. Pete Cousins doesn’t actually know. But whatever rock‘n’roll film his mum took him to see at the long gone Gaumont cinema in Regent Circus helped shape his life.
Pete, who must have been around eight or nine at the time, still beams at the recollection of his momentous day at the flicks: “I could hardly see a thing. Most of the audience were on their feet dancing and singing along.
“I just remember clapping my hands to whatever was happening on the screen. It was a magical experience.”
On another occasion, in a greasy spoon café prevalent in 1950s Britain, he asked if he could put a record on the juke box. “My dad gave me a coin – probably a sixpence – but I couldn’t reach the slot. A man asked me what I wanted to play and I said ‘Elvis’ “There was laughter and cheers all around. He helped me put the coin in and press the right buttons and I toddled back to my mum and dad feeling like I had just joined a club. He might have been a teddy boy – I hope so.”
For well over half-a-century – longer than the Rolling Stones have been together – Pete, as a member and often leader of a colourful assortment of bands, groups and combos has been a key figure of Swindon’s live music scene.
From western swing to doo-wop, psychedelic pop to r’n’b, soul to gospel, heavy rock to blues, rockabilly to disco and even – as Teddy White and the Popular Boy Crooners – a Louis Jordan-style big band revue.
The punk era saw Pete in Stadium Dogs, who supported the Kinks on tour, flirted with stardom and ended up sampling the rock’n’roll lifestyle in Sweden.
Says Pete, now 64: “Over the years I’ve had loads of different day jobs. I even got sacked from some when it was discovered I was in a band. But I was never interested in any of these jobs or in a career in the accepted sense. Music is all I’ve ever wanted to do.” Born in Swindon in 1948, Pete was the first male of the family in eons not to head down the mines. Dad Harry swapped the coal pit for the soccer pitch and, after stints with Chesterfield and Derby, went west to play football for Swindon Town.
A near legendary figure, he later became club coach and served Town for an amazing 43 years in all, while wife Phyllis washed the first team kit at the family home. Inspired by scratchy second hand 45s, Pete’s interests lay elsewhere.
He managed to scrape out The Third Man Theme on his first guitar, a beaten-up £2 acoustic, and took lessons from Dorothy Sprittles, who sold records and gave tuition from her Faringdon Road shop. “She could play a guitar with one hand while rolling endless cigarettes with the other. She regularly set her jersey on fire. You’d see it smouldering,” he remembers.
With fellow Sprittles’ pupils, Pete, aged 12 or13, formed his first band, The Troubadours, mostly knocking out instrumentals by the Shadows, the Sputniks and Bert Weedon at venues including the Mechanics Institute.
Hank Marvin and co went out the window, however, when Pete heard a song called Smokestack Lightning by blues growler Howlin’ Wolf.
“When I eventually saw a picture of Howlin’ Wolf I knew there was another world out there.”
A string of bands followed – he can hardly recall their names – doing gigs at the likes of the somewhat unruly Alliance Club off Fleet Street. “That was the first time I’d ever seen women fight – I didn’t even know they fought until then.
“We were too young to drive so we’d take our gear on buses. Everyone knows where they were the day President Kennedy died. I was on a bus going to a gig in Gorse Hill.”
Last year saw the release of a compilation CD, Rare Mod Vol 4 on the Acid Jazz label, featuring Pete’s late Sixties group, Tomorrow’s Children.
He says: “We started off doing r’n’b, then became a mod band and then we were into the psychedelic stuff.”
A photo in the CD shows four members of Tomorrow’s Children posing in their finest ‘67 era psychedelic gear, while Pete – short hair, suit and tie – looks like the band’s accountant.
“I got the look from Captain Beefheart,” he says.
By this time he had switched from rhythm guitar to lead singer despite owning a smart electric red Futurama Mark III (“thirty guineas from Kempsters.”) Then he joined “a proper blues band,” Barley Mo. “I bought a suede fringed jacket and decided never to get my hair cut again.”
The Teenage Polecats, Swindon’s answer to American doo wop revivalists Sha Na Na, followed, with Pete playing bass. They recorded at Dave Edmunds’ legendary Rockfield Studio and toured with British rockabilly trailblazers Shakin’ Stevens and the Sunsets.
“We recorded a single My Baby’s Dead – a death disc with car crash noises, sobbing, the lot.” After a spell performing at festivals with the denim-clad Boys From Bendy Bow, Pete joined several Swindon musicians in Stadium Dogs, which recorded an album and a string of singles.
“John Peel liked us. He came to Ronnie Scott’s whenever we played there.,” says Pete.
Bizarrely, Stadium Dogs were flown to Sweden to record an album at Abba’s studio with local hero Magnus Uggla, whose Scandinavian take on Mott the Hoople was relished by Swedes.
While backing Uggla on a tour of packed 15,000-seat Swedish arenas, the Dogs were encouraged to act like badly behaved English punks: “Uggla loved the publicity – it made him seem a bit of a rebel.
“The record company had someone follow us around paying for all the damage we’d done. The album went gold on the day of release, we got police motorcycle escort to every gig and I learnt how to sing in Swedish.”
Back home Pete formed a low-key, soft-rock’n’roll duo with his former Teenage Polecat colleague Kaz Tkackyk – the enigmatically titled Pete and Kaz. “We’d wheel our equipment, and our bottles, to local gigs in a shopping trolley.”
The pair also unwittingly wrecked the rising career of former Stadium Dog guitarist/singer Paul Griffiths as a pop star in Italy. Says Pete: “Paul used to have big hits in Italy.”
When he asked Pete and Kaz to back him on a promotional tour there, doing TV and other gigs, the duo cheerfully agreed. Their big mistake was recruiting a fourth member. “That would be the complimentary vodka.….”
If the stories are anywhere near true they made a pretty good fist of drinking Italy dry!
“We knew the writing was on the wall when the record company downgraded our tickets on the flight home.”
The jazz-rock fusion of the Electric Swing sessions at the late Brian Hamley’s Manchester Road studio evolved into the Teddy White Band (Pete assuming the role of Teddy) – which still endures today, three decades later.
Over the years Teddy White has adopted numerous and often surprising guises – sometimes heading wilfully against the grain of current popular taste – from Seventies disco revivalists to burly power trio. “We lost a few fans when we did the disco thing,” he recalls.
When The Commitments were just a sparkle in Roddy Doyle’s eye, Pete was tearing up the pubs and clubs in and around Swindon in the early Eighties as, among others, Teddy White and the King Ringo Peach Bleachers, a Stax-Atlantic style soul/r’n’b crew complete with three-piece horn section and backing singers.
Other Cousins combos have come and gone – Zebracoat, The Mill, Trip Dress – but Teddy White, today performing “tight little rhythm & blues” as Pete describes it, thrives on the local pub-club circuit – as does his swampy, rattlesnake boogie quartet Pignose.
Catch them at a pub near you!