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Cornwall: Singing for my supper in the Seventies.

Updated: Jul 31, 2018

A soft swell delivered gentle waves to the beach, each breaking in a whisper, dragging small stones back in the undertow with a gravelly scraping swish. The echo of an autumn moon rose and fell on the bay and a myriad of stars twinkled overhead. Sunrise would not be far away yet the music that was scheduled to stop at eleven o’clock played on. Every seat was filled and many bodies populated vacant areas of floor, spilling outside on to the beach itself, each one clasping a beer or something more exotic. Candles worn down to a stub, and the pub took on the character of a place of worship although a more appropriate term might be a place of comradeship. We had shared five hours together, give or take, and now the wisdom and deep knowledge only alcohol can generate, allowed us to drift into meaningful analysis of lyrics. Songs were no longer songs but held hidden meaning and ‘I can’t get no satisfaction’ was a statement worthy of discussion and considerable debate. Licensing laws held no terror as the local Policeman was flexing his philosophical muscles along with the rest of us. As dawn broke, a John Denver song saw a good number dancing an unsteady waltz and one last, okay one more, definitely the last drink saw us on our way, enriched, nourished and ready to take on the day. I played this gig many times in the 70’s and whilst not the ‘norm’, it was not untypical. The warmth of our monthly gatherings lives forty plus years later.

In the early seventies, Cornwall was a good deal further away that it is now. All we had was the good old Trunk roads, the A30, A303 and A4 to take us west. Chunks of the M4 and M5 were open when you had to leave the ‘motorway’ and zigzag along remnants of the old road then back on to the next stretch of the M4. At that time it was easier to stick with the A roads, the most pleasant of which was the A303, also destined to be upgraded early in the 70’s but my earlier journeys were, largely, uninterrupted. That is apart from by my battered old Wolseley Hornet, that had a knack of cutting out from time to time, requiring me to pull in to the side of the road and twist a small box containing fuses under the bonnet, jamming it with a piece of thick rubber and the car started again with no problem. The padding wore lose with vibration and my glove box was filled with many more sections of rubber, enough to negotiate a considerable journey. Stonehenge was a ‘must do’ stop, and it still evokes the same feeling of the ages as it did then, the big difference in the 70’s being that you could park close by and walk to the stone circle to munch sandwiches whilst sitting on the very monument. Cornwall, magical Cornwall. I think the knife-edge atmosphere cut in as I left Launceston and set off across the wilds of Bodmin Moor, many signposts reminding me of dear Daphne du Maurier whose passion and love for Cornwall resounds across time, her ‘work’ etched into the very fabric of the county forever. Jamaica Inn, Dozemary Pool, Altarnun, Brown Willey, Roughtor. These are places synonymous with her novels, and I met many more references that relate to other books during my journeys over the next few years.

Daphne and I had met when, having written and asked if I may call on her, she invited me to her house, Kilmarth, where we talked for hours about her writing, her love for Cornwall and the joy and pain she experienced when her stories were translated to the screen. ‘Rebecca’ figured a good deal as the bottle of Croft Original slowly emptied, gone completely by the time I weaved an unsteady path to my car. The Jeremy Brett and Joanna David version was due to appear on television at some stage – I enjoyed that but it has never been shown again- but she was adamant that Lawrence Olivier was Maxim to a tee. I still have the postcard she sent me in reply to my letter and, sadly, another from the family some years later informing me of her passing, thanking me for being in touch with her. We discussed her 1967 book ‘Vanishing Cornwall’ a great deal, so passionate and protective was she about the county. My old battered copy sits beside me now as I write. There are some lovely photos taken by her Son, Christian Browning , and can I suggest that, if you understand a bit about the spirit of Cornwall, or would like to find out more about this magical place, look for the book ‘Vanishing Cornwall’ by Daphne du Maurier. On the site you will find some links to other websites relating to Cornwall and I hope you find them interesting.

Cornwall in the 70’s was in an embryonic stage. For many years holiday destination, yet with few ‘facilities’ to comfort the intrepid traveller. The holiday ‘camp’ format, epitomised by row upon row of static caravans was well established by this time, always situated in prime locations. Planners were clearly oblivious to the effect on the landscape. Many large, often prestigious, hotels grabbed exquisite locations, and sit proudly on headlands and above gorgeous bays. The infill, however, has been populated by much ugly and substandard construction typical of hasty building and sloppy planning control.

However, it’s not for me to sound off over environmental and aesthetic issues. I simply explain how I found things when I arrived in 1971. I had written to an Agent in Truro, enquiring as to whether I could come to Cornwall and ply my trade as a vocalist/guitarist, something I had been doing since my mid teens and it seemed natural to make some money doing what I was good at rather than continue with the never ending treadmill of mundane toil that I assumed to be my lot for life. In March of 1971, an audition was set at a Club in St Austell and, if successful, bookings would start in April, although how regularly was a little uncertain. ‘Live’ gigs at that time had been replaced somewhat with canned music but there was a movement to change all that and I hoped to capitalise on this impending boom. I was so confident that all would be wonderful that I had arranged accommodation and arrived at the Club with my trusty Kasuga twelve string, took to the stage backed by a brilliant local Band, sang ‘Top of the world’ and was signed up there and then. It sounds grand to be ‘signed up’ but the reality was that, over the first season, I sang perhaps two to three nights per week, the second year improved to five nights due to being asked back to venues which was gratifying, then consolidated for the next four years with regular gigs at a group of hotels in Newquay, where I had the luxury of playing just two to three hours a night as against, often, four hours, and the money was great by comparison. An average pub gig netted some £15-£20, whereas my hotel gigs came in at a heady £30-£35. Here is just a snapshot of some of the gigs I remember. None as prestigious as the places Jon and, particularly, Kerensa sing and perform. They are clearly one step ahead of me and in another league altogether. Yet I feel a certain affinity with them. Fellow musicians I suppose. There is a bit of Jon in me I reckon, the way we both play the piano, the way we immerse ourselves in the music. I think I have known a Kerensa in my musical life, perhaps more than one. I wish them well as their music unfolds and I look forward to hearing the original songs hinted at in the first two books.

These few recollections spring to mind from the hundreds of gigs I played over several years. I’ll not name them, though you might guess at a few. I have revisited some in recent years and, whilst much changed in terms of style and comfort, especially as most now serve food, exceptional in some cases, whereas the pubs I sang at were ‘boozers’ with a nod to solid sustenance embodied in the trusty pie and pasty warmer, crisps and almost inedible pork scratchings. And remember that everyone smoked so, by about nine o’clock you could hardly see across the room, especially if the weather was unkind, meaning all doors and windows were closed.

As mentioned earlier, the holiday park was a thriving element of the Cornish holiday, and that still appears to be the case, again with improved facilities, one would assume. Some had been long established and mature trees and bushes took the edge off the rows of caravans, making it feel a little less like Stalag 15.

I played at one near Falmouth every Saturday night for two seasons and the folks were lovely, the clubhouse was large with good acoustics and the crowd always enthusiastic. A huge thunderstorm one night caused loss of power, the place plunged into darkness – happened to Kerensa in Book 2 – during ‘Canadian Pacific’ but I just keep going and sang two verses and a chorus with no accompaniment, the power was restored and we finished the song together. It was a bonding moment.

China clay area pubs had a very insular feel, in that the majority of customers were workers in the industry and often arrived in a haze of dust. The same dust covered everything, depositing a thick layer on the car windscreen that had to be removed in a semi solid layer on one rainy night before I could drive away. I generally asked if anyone would like to come up and sing as song and, in most places, there were no takers but not the case here. Some nights a queue formed and I was ‘requested’ often accompanied by a baleful look, to play what turned out to be a simple and very limited repertoire of, mostly’ Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash songs, which were growled out with intensity and fervour minus the hip movements, although I was encouraged to hold my guitar in ‘shotgun’ style in the ‘Cash’ songs. On nights where the ‘artistes’ were on tour somewhere else, the request was for ‘they Beatles’ and, fortunately, my list of Lennon- McCartney was, and still is, extensive.

My act was varied, so that I could adapt to circumstances, in that I had over a hundred songs in the repertoire, adding new songs all the time. There were occasions when we managed to work through the entire one hundred, repeating some along the way. On average, sixty songs a night was enough to fill the three to four hours, with a bit of banter in between and a short break in the middle. John Denver was a singer I could equate with and many of his songs found there way into each evening. It was a different style, not used by many, apart from John himself, that resonated with many at my regular gigs who seemed happy for me to sing the same songs over and over for two to three years. On one occasion, I remember ‘Calypso’ going round half a dozen times, the hint of a yodel that encouraged some interesting participation from the punters. Venues included pubs both grand and, shall we say ‘basic’. Changing in the outside toilet before and after the gig was a special ‘joy’ and often the singer was expected to occupy a corner of the bar, complete with two PA speakers, pedals, guitar and me, allowing little room for movement, although the top of the speakers did provide more room on which customers could stand their beer glasses. A couple of pubs in Truro were beyond basic at the time but are rather ‘swish’ now- wonder if they pay more than the £15 a night I received for their music? I stood in for someone in Penzance, at a Hotel on the Esplanade and they were impressed by what I did, offering me the job on-going, only to be threatened with violence by the previous occupant, accusing me of ‘nicking’ his gig. Curiously this happened at several places, not with the same guy nor with violence, as I built up my regular gigs so that, into my third year, at least half my ‘work’ was repeat business.

A sophisticated element crept into my list of venues when I was asked to play at a newly opened ‘Country Club’ near Wadebridge. The owners were from London and flew down each weekend to oversee their project. Unlike some ‘Country Clubs’ that were opened on the cheap and had a forlorn feel to them, this was very tasteful, the owners approachable and enthusiastic. Great food was available and the customers treated it as a kind of retreat. I suppose it could be classed ‘upmarket’, the fact that I changed in a room rather than in the outside toilet confirming this. I had discussed what they had in mind music wise before I did my first gig and two names came up. Jim Croce and Gordon Lightfoot. My heart leapt. Other than the Beatles, who stand apart from anyone, Gordon Lightfoot was, and is, a musical hero to me. A Canadian folk singer and a legend as a singer and writer of beautiful songs, Gordon still tours, now in his late seventies and seeing him on stage at Southend in 2017 was a life highlight. Jim Croce was also special and I sang songs by both of these brilliant artistes and I still sing them now, such is the richness of the sentiment and melody they contain. So my evenings at the Country Club turned out to magical. They paid me well, served me food, allowed and encouraged me to play songs I loved – how good can it get?

Working Men’s Clubs were plentiful, as were Labour and Conservative Clubs and I played many. In a small club on the waterfront of a fishing port on the south coast, I had sung a very gratifying gig to an energetic public and was approached as I packed my gear by one of the customers, a furtive look on his face.

‘Great evening’ he said. ‘Do you like fish?’ I replied positively, wondering if it was a general conversation point, being in a fishing port. The gentleman disappeared, returned after a while and handed me a large parcel that transpired to be a whole cod wrapped in newspaper. Whilst grateful, I had to somehow get the creature back to my cottage and, the following morning, proceeded to cut it up with a garden saw on the sawing horse and was obliged to eat cod for the next week as there was no means of freezing any of it.

I sang in tents for wedding receptions where acoustics were dead, and then in atmospheric folk clubs in the far West on Pentire where the atmosphere was great but my music far too progressive in some cases in that it didn’t hold on to the true roots of ‘folk’. But they were appreciative none the less and forgave my lack of authenticity. The extremes took me to formal private hotels and ‘Private Member’s Clubs’ where dress code had to be semi formal and the music requirement strictly ‘middle of the road’. Here, I slipped into Barry Manilow and Johnny Mathis mode, with the occasional daring detour into more ‘cerebral’ Beatles songs. The Manager introduced me to his guests and polite applause was the ‘norm’, such evenings reminding me of times in amateur dramatics, when we had ‘Musical Evenings’ hosted by an elderly gentleman resplendent in full evening dress who turned to the artistes on stage asking if he could ‘prevail upon’ a pre primed performer to offer a rendition of some music hall number.

The venue I describe in my opening paragraph was near Newquay and it was also in this area that I was asked to sing at a group of hotels owned by one family. They had seen me perform somewhere and decided my style suited their clientele, although it turned out that the customers came from various backgrounds so my full repertoire came into play anyway. Sunday evening at a lovely hotel on the headland just outside Newquay were always fun and the customers attentive and appreciative. By then I was earning a massive £35 per night and several times during the two seasons I sang there, someone would come up to me as I announced my last song at ten o’clock, stuffed twenty pounds into my shirt pocket, asking me to ‘carry on a little longer old boy.’ Another in the group, no longer a hotel I noticed on my last visit, was a Saturday night when I was, largely, totally ignored, reducing me to background music. I was puzzled at first but soon discovered that Saturday was the last day of guest’s holiday and they were due to leave the following morning, resulting in the bill being presented on the Saturday evening. Most sat in their chairs staring blankly in bemusement at the sheet of paper in front of them, disputing items noisily, accusing wives or husbands of recklessness, many bustling to reception to try and rescue their holiday and avoid financial ruin. Others just replenished their drinks, slumped back in the chair, resigned to their fate, the holiday over and damage done. Music was unnecessary really but I did try to avoid any sad or mournful songs.

Two gigs in one evening at another in the group just up the coast towards beautiful Bedruthan Steps were special. An indoor barbecue, doors open on to a view of the ocean below, was a magical experience. Low-key music required here, almost background but with a bit of presence, quite and art form I thought at the time. Even then, the owner, who loved what I sang, did come over on one evening, smiled at me, at the same time turning my PA speakers around so they faced the wall, giving a muffled effect. He said nothing but placed a bottle of wine on top of one of the speakers by way of saying. ‘A bit loud old chap, so I’ve turned it down and here’s a bottle of wine. No hard feelings hmmm?’

From eight o’clock I moved up into the dance hall, where chairs and tables were placed around the room, each bearing a candle. Lights were turned low and we had wonderful atmospheric evenings together. The room was always full, I had a grand piano as well as my guitar and locals turned up regularly, some recording the show, perhaps in the hope that I may be famous one day and they would have material to say ’I woz there’. Wonder if any still have the recordings. It would be nice to think that some who read my books and listen to the songs identify with shared time in Cornwall in the seventies. I eagerly await a blog response at some time, although the chances are slim. I sang under the name of Mike Martyn – no relation to Francis in the books. I had the habit of announcing that I was ‘now going to destroy a couple of songs by…whoever… and, on one occasion, was taken to task by a mature gentleman who assured me that ‘my versions were every bit as good as the originals and could he have my autograph.’ Heady times.

An atmospheric Pub near Cheeswrings on Bodmin Moor run by the delightful Pru was another place where the majority of requests were for Beatles’ songs and I willingly complied, the fab four being my musical passion. The gigs here were longer than usual, not by requirement as there were licensing laws in those days that suggested a 10.30 close on weekdays and 11.00 on Saturday, but because we were all having so much fun, I just played on as long as there were folks there to listen. Coming out, the vision of a brilliant starlit umbrella of sky with just a hint of burning sunrise over the moor will live with me forever. At that particular time, I was camping for a few weeks near the north coast and met a lovely lady, recently widowed and there with her family, who came with me and shared a magical evening at Cheesewrings. She left the following day to go home, and I hope the evening was a bright spot in a sad time for her. Just a week later, when driving home from a gig in St Ives, I arrived in a full-blown storm just in time to see my tent, sleeping bag and a few clothes take flight across the field, then to disappear over the cliff into the raging Atlantic.

Through one winter, when work was sparse in Cornwall out of the holiday season, I ventured abroad to Devon, staying there for a few weeks, as I was booked on the Cabaret circuit. Sounds exotic but, believe me, it really wasn’t. This required me to sing at three venues a night, some being converted churches, others community centres and the occasional industrial unit that had all the ambience of a workshop. Audiences were enthusiastic, massaged by a series of comperes who whipped them into frenzy, as each act was about to take the stage. ‘What’s your best song squire?’ one rasped to me. I told him and he burst on to the stage giving me a build up worthy of Roy Orbison.

‘Ladies and gentlemen.’ He called for quiet. ‘Got an absolute treat for you tonight. Can’t get the real thing, but I’m told he’s even better. A big welcome for Mike Martyn and his version of ‘Pretty Woman’ will blow you away, believe me.’ The crowd were up for it. As he came off, passing me on the way, he was unsmiling and hissed ‘make it fucking good or I’m a dead man, and so are you.’

It went well and I survived, and got asked back again and again. A thirty minute session and then it was in the car, off to the next Club, similar routine, grab the cash and on to the final one. Three in a night, £75, Chinese takeaway on the way back and sitting in front of the television by eleven. Very sweet if not totally satisfying- the singing that is, not the takeaway.

Compering Cabaret shows at the Naval bases was a bit nerve wracking, as I had never done this before. Not lacking in confidence though, my trusty guitar and I stepped out in front of five hundred very well dressed officers, ratings and their ladies, and belted out a couple of tried and tested songs to calm the nerves. The backing band were excellent and I was reminded how limiting it is just singing on your own. The evenings went well, the first was the hardest of course and I got away with it apart from introducing the Impressionist as an Illusionist which may have confused a few but only the Artiste pulled me up on this faux pas. I had played in Bands from the age of fifteen, Groups I think we called them in those days, and loved harmony singing but never managed to find rapport with others enough to become the next Hollies or Beach Boys. Strangely now, many years later, I am writing musicals and songs for the books that do use extensive harmony and the joy of encouraging others to do so, and to sing with them, is enjoyable beyond words. You will find some examples that Jon and Kerensa sing on the website from August.

That same winter in and around Plymouth, heavy snow such as we see in Book 1 of Kevrinek, made journeys to remote venues interesting. I spent two days at Widecombe on Dartmoor, stranded but delightfully looked after by fellow refugees, and battled through snowdrifts to another pub, only to find that only two customers had made it through the deluge. The Landlord insisted I did my full set of songs and I was happy to do so. The throng was trebled by the time I left, all six applauding loudly.

The RAF were still operating out of St Evan and St Mawgan at that time and the Social Clubs there were extremely noisy and enthusiastic to the extent that the volume of ‘conversation’ I had to sing over struck me as what it might have felt like trying to sing in a Cotton Mill in full production. One Officer did pay me a compliment, at least I think that’s what it was, when he expressed surprise that there was live music. Coming across the car park, he had assumed the music to be emanating from the jukebox. I was singing Roy Orbison again at the time, so I take comfort from the comment.

Just to round up this ramble, and not wishing to labour the story too long, memories of my years singing in Cornwall grow warmer as distance from them increases but I am so pleased I experience it. I fell in love with Cornwall over several summers and winters, all the seasons bringing fresh joy and challenge. I know what it’s like to live there, well forty years ago anyway, to sing there when the vibrant music of the sixties was only a decade old. Curiously, my Son loves the music of that time, it seems to be timeless and raw to the extent that recordings didn’t suffer from over production. Some songs were barely two minutes long, which would account for how I could get through sixty to a hundred songs in one evening. At least American Pie gave us up to eight minutes of value and Paul Simon began to expand songs out.

If you have any thoughts and memories of Cornwall in the seventies, or earlier or, indeed later, today even, I’d love to share them with you on the site. Jon and Kerensa sing some of the songs I played, but probably more professionally, and they are both considerable better looking.


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