Thursday, 7 July 2011

Going, going, gong

During my very first teaching appointment, uncertificated in a prep school, in the days when a pint of bitter cost one and fourpence and a packet of Senior Service half-a-crown, a Mr James Blades came to the school to give a lecture about percussion instruments. He was a very likeable man, spirited and enthusiastic, with a wide range of instruments, among which he moved with absolute confidence and mastery. Xylophone, timpani, snare drum, tubular bells, gong, traps (i.e. drumkit), shakers, rattles, bells and whistles, the complete 'kitchen'. The most dramatic moment came when he demonstrated his gong, a heavy Chinese instrument measuring about 40cm across. He claimed its original purpose wasn't to summon diners to table or to provide an orchestral boom, but to torture captives: they were tied to a post, the gongman blocked his ears with wax and built up a gradual crescendo with his beaters until the torturee could bear it no longer and cracked, spilling the beans.

Or it might be used to execute criminals: when a certain volume and reverberation had been reached, the condemned's eardrums burst and his head exploded, spilling the brains. Or something like that. 8- and 9- year-old boys, basically ratbag monsters, lapped this news up and wrote home about it the following Sunday, no doubt saying that when they grew up they wanted to be percussionists and/or Chinese executioners.

Years later, all degreed and certificated up, when a pint of bitter cost £2.40 and I'd stopped smoking, I was attending a summer school in Cardiff when the same man turned up again, by now Professor of Percussion at the Royal Academy of Music in London and universally known as Jimmy. He gave exactly the same lecture as I remembered from 20 years before, but tuned up and filled out musically and, in deference to our adult sensibilities, with the Chinese torture bit left out.

Curiously, everyone must have heard Jimmy Blades playing at some time or other. In 1942 he recorded the Morse code V for Victory, dit-dit-dit-dah (the same rhythm as the opening of Beethoven's 5th) on a favourite African drum for the BBC to preface coded messages to the French resistance. It was heard again in the film The Longest Day. More familiarly perhaps, he was the striker of the mighty gong that introduced J. Arthur Rank films. Not the one you saw on screen: that gong was a fake, made of papier maché. Jimmy Blades stood at one side with his much smaller Chinese gong and beater when the title footage was filmed, while the bare-torsoed gongman mimed his strokes.

He died in 1999. In a roundabout way (I was never a direct student of his) he taught me a great deal about percussion.

(I'd like to continue this, but there's the gong calling me to supper.)


Tenon_Saw said...

I saw him lecture and remember the story about the Rank gong being cardboard. He also explained why maracas are percussion even though you shake them and don't hit them with sticks!
There was the story about him playing the start of Bolero with 2 pennies on the drum skin and being told "It's still too loud".
Again the anvil sound in a famous piece of music (Anvil Chorus) was a Rolls Royce car spring.
His lecture made a great impression; what a guy.

Z said...

Either that gong is bigger than 40cm or that is a very small man.

moreidlethoughts said...

Never mind supper! I want the drum.
(I was also hoping for the Bolero story)

letouttoplay said...

We have a set of bongos. I wonder if I could call the family to supper with a bong.

Dave said...

I am beating the wall at present (with my head). I have no particular tune in mind.

Rog said...

You must be a nightmare to play Trivial Pursuits with!

Christopher said...

T-S: Good to see you. Yes, a very remarkable man with an endless fund of good stories. I may post one or two in due course, particularly the one about the tubular bell and the bucket of water.

MIT: It was a very good supper indeed, 10 to table and barbecued Toulouse sausage. The full story will come out one day soon.

Z: (Sorry, got these in the wrong order) The fake gong, as in the pic, made of papier-maché and sprayed with gold paint, measured about 6' in diameter. The sound it made was a dull sort of thwock.

Mig: Bong, spliff, tanker, creeperbud, fatboy, whatever. Bon appetit!

Dave: But it's a great feeling when you stop, isn't it?

Rog: I've never really gone in much for blood sports.

letouttoplay said...


Christopher said...

A spliff for two, I'm told.

moreidlethoughts said...

Hippie-speak! You've led a less-than sheltered life, haven't you?

Christopher said...

Ha! Well, I have to say that in that very short hippie-speak list to Mig, I made one up to see what would happen. It does you credit that no one picked it up.

Vicus Scurra said...

I am ashamed to say I did not know of Mr Blades, but did know that the rather muscular gentleman in the picture was Billy Wells.

Christopher said...

Well, I didn't know that, Vicus. The Bombardier. J. Blades was at pains to insist that he wasn't the gong-beater as seen, being only of medium height and balding, but I don't remember him identifying him.