There was a band on at the Labour Club this weekend, called The Unknown.
This was their 20th anniversary. They’ve played at the Labour Club once a year, every year, except for the year of the flood, since 1989.
I’ve watched my life go by in those 20 years.
I was there for their first gig. I designed the poster. It was a front cover from one of those 60s science fiction magazines, called “Secrets of the Unknown”. The title was written in bold 3D letters. By the artful use of tippex and crayon, I blocked out the words “Secrets of”, just leaving the name of the band.
The picture showed the silhouette of a figure radiating like the sun, with other figures standing back, shielding their eyes. So that was the impression you were left with: that this being was “the Unknown” – a mysterious, radiating stranger – and that he made people stand back in awe and fear and wonder.
I was proud to have been involved with setting up that first gig. The Unknown are special in that they are one of the first bands in the world to include people with learning disabilities.
Andrew Walpole, one of the founder members, band arranger and mentor, says they are called the Unknown because they are, in fact, “unknown throughout the world.” Also the name hints at unknown potential.
They were formed out of the Camden Society music workshops, begun in 1986. When people were ready with a song they could join in with the staff and volunteers, who had a working band at the time, called Who Cares Anyway. It was out of this that the Unknown were formed, in 1988, and they’ve been playing ever since.
They’ve played in a variety of exotic venues, including a monastery, a converted convenience, a city farm and a party boat along the Thames, but their favourite spot has always been the Whitstable Labour Club.
The band consists of Annette Schmidt (shakers) Andrew Schmidt (bass guitar) Sally Wilson (vocals cabassa tambourine xylophone) Tony O’Brien (drums) Angela Davies (vocals whistle) & Andrew Walpole (old enough to know better).
They play an eclectic mix of covers and standards, obviously reflecting their differing musical tastes, from Robert Johnson through Richard Rogers to fifties rock and roll. Included was a very spirited version of Achy Breaky Heart sung with joyous gusto by Sally Wilson, and Andrew Walpole singing his version of Fleetwood Mac’s Man of the World. Also several requests: Johnny B Goode, Charlie Brown, Ticket to Ride, Crazy, all performed with spirit and panache.
They also do over 20 of their own numbers. Some of these have been used in a recent award winning film about the Camden Society’s history, as well for the head office phone on-hold filler!
The rhythm section are remarkable in their pin-point accuracy and in their ability to shift to Andrew Walpole’s lead. They are truly the powerhouse of the band.
Particular mention has to be made of Tony O’Brien’s drum playing which, as well as being spot-on rhythmically, is also amazingly complex and diverse in his use of the full range of his kit. He says he had some lessons last year, funded by SHAPE, an organisation for empowering deaf and disabled people through the Arts, but it is clear that he is a gifted player anyway.
Andrew Schmidt, too, is a master of his instrument, and plays with cool style and presence.
Sally Wilson, the lead singer, conveys her feeling for the music with great spirit and obvious enjoyment, which is very infectious. She is also a very good dancer. Annette Schmidt keeps perfect rhythm and an entertaining commentary throughout the performance.
I have to say I was almost moved to tears by this.
Angie can’t learn lyrics. It is probably the only sign of her disability. Aside from that she is an open, friendly, funny, up-front individual with a very good voice.
But she can’t learn lyrics. Consequently Andrew Walpole has to sing the words into her ear, which Angie is then able to hear and duplicate.
But seeing them there, it was like they had become temporarily melded into a single individual, as if his voice was passing through her ear and then out of her mouth. It was odd and disconcerting to watch, but very moving at the same time. It was as if Andrew was holding her psychically and she had become, through her openness and susceptibility, a temporary instrument for his voice.
Andrew Walpole says this about the band: “Disability is just incidental. Like any emancipation you’d hope the day will come when integration is natural and needs no comment. We’re very simply enjoying and working at being the best band we can be.”
They have an album out, called Unknown Ground, two tracks of which were chosen for the first UK compilation of musicians with learning disabilities: Wild Things Vol 1 sounds of the disabled underground. They are currently working on a new album.
Hopefully they will still be appearing at the Labour Club in 20 years time.
Hopefully I will still be around to see them.
- CJ STONE
“Stone writes with intelligence, wit and sensitivity” Times Literary Supplement
Thanks to Piet Clark for the photographs. You can see more of them here.