Force Five from East Anglia

Ritchie Blackmore with Neil Christian

Stephen Clare was in touch with guitarist Rob Munton recently. Rob played in a semi-pro group called Sounds Force Five in the Sixties, who supported many up and coming or already well known groups. He got to see influential guitar players such as Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Syd Barrett, Harry Vanda, Andy Summers and a young Ritchie Blackmore in his days with Neil Christian and the Crusaders. In  1966 a touring version of The Crusaders was put together to promote the hit single “That’s Nice” which made number 16 in the Uk charts. Neil had recorded for Joe Meek prior to this but without any great success. He had used a number of well known musicians for his live shows (including Jimmy Page and Albert Lee.) On this occasion the group, which was active around April / September 1966, consisted of Tony Marsh on keyboards, Jim Tornado Evans on drums, Ritchie Blackmore and Bibi Blange on bass. Ritchie had worked live with Neil the year before, but sneaked off to join Lord Sutch as he paid more!  Neil had been working solo after that, but with a hit he needed a backing band to play live, and could afford to pay The Crusaders better wages. (Neil: “first time I saw him he was playing with the Outlaws. I was introduced to him by a piano player called Tony Marsh who used to work in The Savages. Ritchie would only work for people if he thought they stood a chance of success and I said, ‘If you can’t make your mind up come on the gig with us have a blow, see what you think’… he said ‘I know a Big Star in the making when I see one’; after that I got on great with him and he joined the band.”)
Rob was really impressed with Ritchie and can still vividly remember the event, and kindly offered to pen us something for Darker Than Blue.
“I was a 16 year-old guitarist with Lincolnshire band Sounds Force Five, enthusiastically pursuing my A Levels whilst playing 3 to 5 nights a week in around the pubs, clubs and dance halls of East Anglia.  As a semi-pro working band in the ‘60’s we got to work with a lot  of famous, soon to be famous and  nearly famous bands.  We were the latter, but the summers of ’66 & ’67 were a very enlightening  time. We played support to Hendrix, Cream, Pink Floyd, The Move, The Small Faces, Zoot Money, Chicken Shack, The  Yardbirds,  Aynsley  Dunbar Retaliation, The Easybeats, Marmalade, Status Quo, The Swinging Blue Jeans, and many more.”

Force Five on stage photo
One week, The Sound Force Five (with Rob on guitar in the middle in the photo above) were booked to appear as support to Graham Bonney* [not to be confused with Graham Bonnet], but were told he had contracted pleurisy, so Neil Christian and the Crusaders were booked as a late substitution that was not advertised.

“The event was at the Peterborough Palais, a gig where we had a regular Saturday support slot every few weeks. The Palais was a Roller Skating rink during the week but every weekend it transformed into a rock dance  hall. It was always a good gig with a pretty full house and, being not too far to travel from London, some big names. We had already played there as support to the Small Faces, The Merseybeats, Peter Fenton and the In Crowd, etc., but must confess I had never heard of Neil Christian and the Crusaders at that time. The Palais had a decent sized stage at one end, a central concrete square on the dance floor, which was surrounded by a metal rail (to stop the roller skaters banging into the walls). There was an open corridor between the fence and the wall and a couple of very basic connecting changing rooms along one side. The roof was pitched and open and with all of those hard surfaces the room acoustics were dreadful when empty, but when a crowd of a few hundred moved in it transformed into a really great sounding venue.
It was a pretty local gig  for us, only 20 miles from our home-town of Spalding, and the Crusaders roadies were already setting up their gear when we arrived. There was plenty of room on the stage for us both, including 2 drum kits, our Hammond and Leslie, and the back-line for two bands. We set up our gear and retired to the dressing rooms. The Crusaders were already there, enthusiastically drinking wine from several large flagons that they were passing around. We were invited to share, which we did, and I got talking to their guitarist who the others called  Ritchie.  
Ritchie had a cherry red Gibson ES 335 TDC. I had a Gretsch Tennessean, so we tried each other guitar’s unplugged in the dressing room, as you do. It was the days before ultra-light strings so we would often use a banjo string for the top E and down-tune a medium gauge set for the rest. I think that’s where the unwound G came from. Ritchie’s stringing was a little heavier than mine, as I recall. Ritchie had pretty long hair and a full moustache. The Crusaders bass player was a fairly outrageous  looking guy called Bibi Blange. Bibi had the hugest mutton chop sideboards and dressed in a late 19th century military coat, and really flared jeans. He played a sunburst Gibson EB2 bass, the one that used the ES style body.
The Sound Force Five all went out into the hall around 6:30 before the punters arrived and we leaned against the skaters rail at the front to watch the Crusaders do their sound check. Man, they were loud! I don’t recall what amps they were using. It wasn’t Marshall Double stacks – they were only just appearing on the scene and I saw the first ones used by Clapton and Hendrix the following year. My recollection is that Richie used a Combo, maybe a Fender Twin, but can’t be sure.  As with most bands at the time, the vocals were pretty well drowned out and I wasn’t overly impressed with Neil Christian, mainly because I couldn’t hear him. But Bibi was standing there with the EB2 high up on his chest dominating the stage. The guitarist sounded pretty good as well. They did a second run through number, an instrumental, which was pretty unusual in the mid ‘60’s. The Shadows were definitely not cool any more, but this Dude was playing a piece I recognised as  Rimsky Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee. Ritchie had the 335 feed-backing on high gain and he played the whole piece with left hand only, using hammer-ons and pull-offs. His technique was awe inspiring, the fastest playing I had ever seen, and note perfect.   I remember feeling very deflated when we went on a few minutes later to do our sound check. Fortunately the Crusaders didn’t stay to watch us!
It was a good night with a pretty full crowd. We did our first set to a reasonably appreciative audience and I then set myself up on the left side of the stage around 3 metres in front of  Ritchie to  watch him  play. To say I was mesmerised is an understatement. I would go on to watch Hendrix and Clapton from a similar distance but they didn’t come close. I saw Page with the  Yardbirds too, he was very good, but just not as raw, loud or simply technically intimidating as Ritchie was. I don’t think the crowd really appreciated the genius I was watching that night. It was just another loud rock band for them, but for me it was an astonishing demonstration of the capabilities of the electric guitar that reached far beyond my imagination. I can’t tell you the songs they played that night. I didn’t know the Crusaders or their material, so I guess it was a mix of some of their singles releases and a few standards. To be honest it didn’t matter as I only heard this incredible sounding guitar.”

Ritchie Blackmore best guitaristIn 1967 there was a debate being carried on in the pages of Beat Instrumental magazine as to the best rock guitarists around (which ranked Ritchie among the good guitarists of the time) and Rob felt compelled to write and give his considered opinion, which they published in the November 1967 issue. So was Ritchie the best of the best? Back to Rob:
“In hindsight it had a lot to do with my level of musical  exposure at that time. I had grown up playing mainly covers and had musically evolved following the Beatles through their musical journey. I had idolised Clapton in Bluesbreakers, but had been disappointed by Cream. Hendrix’s performance had been average at best as he struggled with poor sound and his confidence at BBQ ’67 in Spalding. Rather surprisingly Hendrix seemed intimidated by the crowd that had mostly come to see northern soul band Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band on the same bill, and I think he let this derail his performance. In contrast Ritchie was in complete control, arrogant in his performance, very loud and so damn good that I was completely overwhelmed.”

Rob Munton is an East Anglian born guitarist who played in semi-pro bands from 1963 to the early ‘80’s when he emigrated to Australia. Bands he played with include: The G8Crashers, Force Five, Sounds Force Five, Tuesday’s Outcome, Outcome, Headley-Wagg Set, Sloopy, The WashDelta Heroes and Junxn. In February 2015 Rob  briefly returned to the UK for a 50th Anniversary reunion of all original members of Sounds Force Five, playing 3 sell-out gigs.
Neil Christian died in 2010. A CD compilation of his studio work plus unreleased tracks called That’s Nice was released. It included a confirmed one off Neil Christian Blackmore session My Baby’s Left Me done in 1967.
Research: Stephen Clare. © 2015 Darker Than Blue.

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