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Concert for the Bells

St Martin-of-Tours - 31st May 2008

Dave Griffiths remembers an amazing night

Photos Dave Griffiths and Bob Pruden

It was back at the beginning of the year when I was approached by Bob Pruden, Tower Captain of the St Martin-of-Tours bellringers with regard to DUPE performing a fund-raising gig for their ‘Bell Augmentation Fund’. St Martin’s is a lovely old Kentish church and I quite liked the perversity of a rock band raising money for something as old-fashioned and quintessentially English as church bells.  Another influencing factor was the fact that Bob and I went to secondary school together - I’ve known him since 1969!  The rest of DUPE saw no reason why not, in principle, so Bob and I began working on the details.

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Obviously it would make sense for the venue to be not too far from the Church and we had to be able to charge an entrance fee, which precluded doing anything in the pub. Chelsfield Village Hall seemed obvious but as DUPE have played there quite frequently, I rather shied away from that.

Bob then came up with a ludicrous suggestion: why not do the gig in the church itself? I was sceptical to say the least – I could just imagine the ‘angry parishioner of Chelsfield’ letters flooding in, but Bob seemed confident and said that he’d check with the Rector.  I mentioned this possibility at the next DUPE rehearsal to three pairs of raised eyebrows. The next time Bob and I met, in the pub as it happens, he confirmed that the Rector had no problems with the principle of a rock band in the church. Apparently the PCC raised no serious objections and the Archbishop of Canterbury was unable to comment so we set a date: 31st May 2008. When we started publicising the gig, there were a surprising the number of people who asked whether it was a Saturday or a Sunday – a Sunday?  In a church? What, in between Mattins and Evensong? Get a grip!

I put it to Bob that we ought to incorporate the bells into the gig somehow and it was then his turn to look slightly doubtful. When he passed on this suggestion to his fellow bell-ringers, they were ‘well up for it’ to use a colloquial term, although none of us had quite thought how on earth it could be achieved. The one issue Bob raised was that the bells are designed to be audible outside the church but are extremely quiet inside, sometimes inaudible over the organ.  Even opening the trapdoor to the bell loft only added a few decibels to the sound so we would have to find a way of making the damn things louder.

In order to establish the scale of the problem, I popped along to one of the bell-ringers’ practices on a Monday night. He was right, the bells were awfully quiet – blast!  While they were ringing, I was given access to the organ in the church and had a quiet play, idly seeing what chords fitted with the bells, discovering that D flat major blended rather nicely.  With this encouragement I decided that we would somehow have to amplify the bells, although I was painfully aware that the entire thing was close to getting out of hand.  Bob opened up all the stops on the organ that evening to demonstrate how loud it could go – not very, to be honest, so playing Deep Purple on a pipe organ was sadly ‘out’.

Fortunately, my frequent visits to the Five Bells had yielded Bruce Cocks as an acquaintance.  Bruce is the director of ShowComms, providing communication equipment for major sporting and entertainment events around the world and I thought it was time to seek his advice.  Bruce loved the idea of miking up the Bells and before I had drawn breath, had started planning what we would need for the job.

His enthusiasm and expertise certainly took the pressure off me and I began to work out how to make the equation Rock Band + Bells (in D Flat) equal something other than a horrible mess. Immediately the song which came to mind was our encore, the Beatles’ Hey Jude.  Apart from it being the last song in the set and therefore the climax to the gig, we also insert an audience singalong section which would be an ideal time for a bit of ringing.  Without even touching the piano, I knew that we could lead from D Flat, via E Flat to F major the key of Hey Jude, straight up the scale, without too many harmonic jolts. I took this to the next rehearsal and we had a go; without the bells, the D Flat build-up seemed extremely long and dull, but I was sure that with the bells ringing on top it would be fine – I just hoped that I had remembered the right key for the bells!

We had a great deal of help on the weeks leading up to the gig and mention must go to Julius Bannister, Anne Mead, Doug ‘Yogi’ Parkes and Bruce Cocks.  The latter met with me one Friday morning at the Church to sound-check the bells.  We climbed into the bell loft and Bruce slung two different microphones over the rafters in front of one of the louvres which carry the sound out of the belfry.  We ran the cable down to the ringing platform and plugged each lead into a small mixing desk which then outputted to a tiny powered speaker.  The more sensitive microphone overloaded horribly but the other, often used for miking up bass drums of drum kits sounded quite wonderful – it was then that I knew that this madcap idea had a fighting chance of working!

On the day of the gig, we arrived at the St Martin’s and began setting up. Paul managed to wedge his drum kit between the choir stalls and Brian and I managed to balance our amplifiers on various ecclesiastical seats nearby. It took a while to get the sound right, especially as we had to boost the sound for Paul who was behind all of our amplifiers and felt a bit isolated.  After a while we managed to sound check a song or two in what was a very ‘lively’ acoustic.

Bruce had left all the cables in place so all we had to do in theory was switch the mixer on and sling a cable over the balcony and plug into a spare channel on our P A amplifier. This we did and the bell-ringers, who had kindly turned up early for the soundcheck, rang all the bells for us. Special mention must go to Nick Wilkins who in the absence of one of the ringers, rang two bells simultaneously without disappearing and wrapping himself around a nearby bell – not for the faint-hearted!

The sound in the church was fantastic and very loud, so all we needed now was a good audience.

From about 7pm, people started arriving and by the time we were ready to go, the church was nice and full.  It was especially encouraging to see people from the village who had not been to any of our musical events before.

As we walked on, we received a round of applause, which was a ‘first’ and certainly helped calm the nerves at the beginning of what was to be an extraordinary night.  We kicked off with ‘Got to Get You Into My Life’ by the Beatles and it immediately struck us that whilst the acoustic of the empty church during the soundcheck was a bit too echoey, a load of nice absorbent bodies had made the world of difference.  The sound was big but clear – this was fun!

We ended the first set on a particularly apocalyptic version of ‘I am the Walrus’, joined by my wife Helen on electric cello, and received a very enthusiastic response. From the comments we received during the interval, the sound was excellent and everyone was enjoying themselves, helped no doubt by the amount of alcohol smuggled into the church; I personally thought that the font served as a rather good bar – it had enough beer cans on it!

The second set kicked off with Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water and each successive song seemed to go down better than the last. By the time we came to the encores, we in the band knew that we had been part of something a bit special and we were looking forward to the grand finale.

Before launching into the first chords of Hey Jude I squinted through the lights to ensure that the bell-ringers were in position.  After a thumbs-up from Bob, I launched into the song; we have played this song so many times and whilst it never gets boring for us, there was a definite sense of anticipation on that night.  Finally we moved into the nice singalong section where the band stop and leave Paul just marking time on the kick and snare drums. The sound of everyone singing along in the generous 12th century acoustics was most moving and having milked that for as long as I dared, I pointed a finger at Bob, signalling the ringing to start.

You really had to be there – the sound was astounding!  Some people admitted after to having had a lump in the throat and I was amazed that the singing continued perfectly in F major, despite the bells being in an off-putting D Flat.  Whether I had chosen the key correctly would only be confirmed when Pete, Brian and I came back in; I counted in and we started a rhythmic D flat crescendo and I was extremely relieved to discover that the bells were perfectly in tune with us.  The sound of full band and bells was something I will never ever forget – complete magic.  As we blasted back into the last four choruses with full band, I gave the throat-cut sign to Bob and the bells subsided.

At the end of the song we elongated the hell out of the last chord and to our utter surprise, received a standing ovation! Personally I suspect that sitting in pews all evening was probably taking its toll on peoples’ bums and any excuse to alleviate the discomfort was welcome, but we were genuinely thrilled at the reaction.  If you were there – thanks for being a great audience.

We raised over £600 for the bells and our contribution has helped the ‘Bell Augmentation Fund’ on its way.  As I write this, the order has been placed and the raw material for the three new bells has been purchased.  Maybe we’ll come back and do it again with all eight bells, but I think we’ll leave it for the time being – it’d be a shame to spoil a great memory!

Dave Griffiths - August 2008