Throughout the musically iconic 1960's there was a constant turnover of personnel and name/image changes among members of provincial pop groups in and around Birmingham and the Black Country. This was no less evident than with the evolution of Varsity Rag in June 1967 who, in reality, were a reincarnation of The Shanes who were a self-styled clone of The Spencer Davis Group. The Shanes disbanded in late 1965.
The membership of the long established Shanes - a name inspired by the western movie of the same name- comprised of, Mick Lawson (lead vocal/rhythm guitar/harmonica), Brian Nicholls (lead guitar), Roy Jones (bass), Ken Horden vocals/drums), and Tony Campbell (vocals/sax). Prior to this line up, Rod Lilly played lead guitar. The Shanes played rock, blues and jazz and recorded two singles on the Dial label.
Tony Campbell left during the middle of 1965 to concentrate on jazz, Brian Nicholls left in 1965 to join The Little People and then The Capitals, Mick Lawson was 'headhunted' by Max Griffiths of the immensly popular Brum group, The D'fenders and Ken Horden joined The Modernaires replacing drum luminary, Tony Finister. Roy Jones, a superb bass player, prematurely retired from gigging to get married and raise a family.
Whilst playing in Wuppertal, Germany, in late 1966, Mick Lawson and fellow D'fender Jon Fox (formerly of Jon Fox and The Hunters) decided to leave the group on returning to the UK and form Varsity Rag. Mick and John approached Ken Horden and Brian Nicholls and rehearsals began in June 1967 at The Albion pub in Long Acre, Nechells, Birmingham. The name Varsity Rag was chosen because it was felt that it would engender interest from the lucrative university circuit. In the event, it didn't!! Instead, Varsity Rag were, more than adequately compensated by the popular pub/club/town hall/ballroom circuit. And also, the Bailey Circuit – a series of large cabaret clubs in the north east.
Following a week's full time rehearsals, Varsity Rag visited Wolverhampton promoter, Roger Allen at his palatial offices in High street, Tettenhall, Wolverhampton during the last week in June, 1967 and walked away with a full diary for July, 1967. A full diary was maintained for almost the entirety of the group's existence up to its demise on New Year's eve 1970 at Bromsgrove Baths. The group played in and around Wolverhampton and also Birmingham and the Black Country and had quite a loyal following - including a fan club at one stage. They supported many of the household names eg Fleetwood Mac, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, The Searchers, The Animals, The Nice, The Yardbirds – just to name a few! The only remaining records of gigs performed are Brian Nicholls' diaries from 30th June, 1967 to 01st December, 1968 which reveal a total of 351 gigs during that 17 month period.
Playing cover versions of popular songs was the order of the day with all provincial groups otherwise, you didn't work! Varsity Rag did record four tracks at Wolverhampton's Domino Sound Studio in Albrighton (near Wolverhampton) under the 'eye' of producer Irving Martin. Three of the tracks, Gypsy Girl, Battle of Farthing Green and, Highway Blues were written by Mick Lawson – the final track being a cover of Hopeton Lewis' Rock Steady. Irving Martin produced a number of releases on CBS but, always pre-recorded the backings with studio musicians therefore it was virtually always just the lead singer featured on a group's recording. This was also the case with many nationally known pop groups with the only exception being those of the blues/progressive genres. Varsity Rag were having none of the schmaltzy insidious 'session men' nonsense and made this known to Irving Martin with the resultant collapse of a signing to CBS. Notwithstanding the requirement to play covers, Varsity Rag had a 'core' musical vein in the genre of The Spencer Davis group, et-al.
The amplification used by Varsity Rag would be considered 'small' by modern standards but, more than adequate by 1960's standards. The Spencer Davis group and, even the mighty Shadows only sported the same power. ie two Vox AC30 guitar amps, one 50 watt bass amp and a 200 watt Park PA system. Brian used a Dallas treble booster and the most popular pedal, a FuzzTone! Microphones were, of course, Shure – the industry standard. There were no monitor speakers so, you had to develop a 'stage ear' There were no sound checks either! Varsity Rag have played at The Park Hall Hotel ballroom in Wolverhampton and at the end of their 45 minute spot had to 'break down' and move their equipment within 15 minutes (to the sound of a DJ) whist entering the ballroom from left of stage were, say, Fleetwood Mac who would need to be set-up in 15 minutes and away so, at the end of the DJ spot it was...”one two three”.......as I said, no soundcheck!!!
Like all groups there were changes to the Varsity Rag line-up. Jon Fox left late in 1968 to form Cathedral and then on to join Jigsaw. He was replaced by Barry Hinks. Brian Nicholls left shortly afterwards and opened a successful guitar school and was replaced by Max Griffiths from The D'fenders. Mick Lawson left in 1969 to form Evensong and he was replaced by Laurie Hornsby on lead vocals, guitar and keyboards. Laurie came with an excellent pedigree having played with The Exchequers, Today's Post, The Dog That Bit People and Raymond Froggat. Laurie went on to write the difinitive accounts of the Birmingham music scene in Brum Rocked and its sequel, Brum Rocked On.
Shortly after Laurie joining Varsity Rag, the group secured a residency at The Spider's Web night club in Walsall. Ironically, Mick Lawson returned to the group when Laurie left late in 1969. Gigs (or bookings as they were then known) had seriously depleted due to more and more groups becoming 'progressive' and hence, too loud for the pub and club circuit. The very same live venues were now taking the retrograde step of changing to Discos. The groups perhaps had only themselves to blame and, a DJ was cheaper tha a group anyway but, at the expense of the ambience of a live act. Young musicians who speak to Brian Nicholls today are 'mortified' by the fact that the 26 local groups who worked for the same agency as Varsity Rag (Astra) were all averaging 28 to 30 gigs per month - every month, and that was just in and around Wolverhampton. This phenomenon was also evident in all other main cities and large towns throughout the UK.
Groups today tell Brian that they are...”lucky if we can get one gig a month”... – and even then, by unscrupulous 'promoters' who require them to play for free - their only 'reward' being, free drinks!
Today, Ken Horden travels the world as a successful cricket umpire, Jon Fox has retired, Laurie Hornsby is a successful author, song writer and theatre producer, Mick Lawson still performs as Emmitt Till and Brian Nicholls performs as an acoustic duo called Route 66. Nothing is known of the other former bandmates.
Mick Lawson (vocals), Brian Nicholls (guitar, vocals), Jon Fox (bass guitar, vocals), Ken Horden (drums, vocals).
The text was kindly submitted by Brian Nicholls, 2013.