I was there

Nick Mason with his precious Ferrari 250 GTO

Nick Mason, celebrated drummer with Pink Floyd, our Contributing Editor and a noted Ferrari collector, looks back to the time when the fabled rock band provided a soundtrack to the late 1960s West Coast counter culture

Estimated reading time: 11 minutes

Ever since The Beatles led the so-called British invasion in 1964, there has been talk of UK musicians “conquering” the US. My first trip to the States was rather less triumphant when, in the mid-1960s, I arrived as a wide-eyed architectural student on a summer break. The automotive powerhouse that was Detroit was still in full swing, and there were chrome-laden land yachts as far as the eye could see.

However, my initial motoring experience was limited to a rather engaging deal, operated by the Greyhound Lines bus company where, in exchange for $99, I was entitled to unlimited travel across the entire country for three months. Delighted with this arrangement, I embarked on a coast-to-coast trip, taking just three days to travel from Manhattan to the fabled West Coast. It was, without doubt, educational (physically and socially) though not dissimilar, I imagine, to the travel arrangements of Captain Bligh’s Bounty
when modified by his mutineers.

Close friendships were made and, by arrival in San Francisco, the physical experience of sleeping in a coach seat with no stops longer than 20 minutes, suggested that budget airlines aren’t that bad after all and that, on the American freeway, nothing beats travelling in your own vehicle.

With this knowledge, I joined up with a fellow student and we invested a modest sum in a 1953 Cadillac, an Eldorado, I think. So equipped, we drove from Lexington, Kentucky to Acapulco in Mexico. Later I realised that this was considerably more demanding than competing in the Carrera Panamericana road race. We didn’t speak Spanish, and we certainly didn’t have an interpreter, engineering assistance or indeed a decent map.

Rather unexpectedly, just a year later I found myself disembarking from a Boeing 707 at LA airport with a new occupation in my passport, optimistically describing me as a “musician”. I have to say that, even now, more than 40 years later, I still get that same buzz of anticipation and pleasure arriving at what has always seemed to be the real hub of the music business.

Even if the UK has produced most of the best music (The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Who et al –discuss), the M4 motorway from Heathrow into London isn’t loaded with the same sun-kissed sense of possibility as the palm-lined boulevards of LA, a staple of every rock documentary and promo video ever since the medium was invented.

“Los Angeles and San Francisco were social hotspots when touring, with so much of the music
industry based there”
Los Angeles and San Francisco were social hotspots when touring, with so much of the music industry based there. As well as the musicians, there were people like Sam Jonas Cutler. I had originally met Sam in Notting Hill, where he had, I think, been a special needs teacher. This qualified him perfectly to become a rock show organiser.

After organising the Stones’ fabled concert in Hyde Park, he had joined their crew and ended up in California, exchanging the corduroy jacket for a buckskin fringed number and Viva Zapata moustache to achieve the full Buffalo Bill look mandatory for West Coast musicians at the time. It was a look could be achieved by shopping at Nudie’s. Nudie Cohn made the clothes for all the big country and western singers, and had a white Pontiac Bonneville convertible, with silver-dollarstudded dashboard and bodywork, Colt 45 pistol grip door handles and gearshift, and an enormous cattle horn hood ornament to gore any unfortunate pedestrian who crossed his path.

Anyway, after the Altamont debacle (a free festival headlined by the Stones, when Meredith Hunter was murdered by Hells Angels), Sam managed to bounce back and became part of the Grateful Dead team, ending up on the band’s management staff. Oh, and mentioning qualifications, one of our better road crew had come from a background as a psychiatric nurse. The hotels were a treat. The Continental Hyatt House on Sunset Strip, more often known as “the Riot House”, was particularly notorious. Their policy was not to take complaints from residents on the basis that they catered for the music business. It was unusual not to have at least three other bands checked in at one of these hotels. On one early tour we met up with Frank Zappa and a band he was producing at the time called the GTO’s.

This was not a reference to Gran Turismo Omologato, but an all girl band: GTO in this instance standing for ‘Girls Together Often’. I know the days of e pty freeways, easy parking and smog-free skies are now a distant dream, but the Whisky A Go Go’s still there, along with the Hollywood Bowl. (Pink Floyd played in the former in late October 1967, and debuted The Dark Side Of The Moon in its entirety at the Bowl in September 1972, six months before the album’s release.)

Travel was initially limited to one rental car for band (four persons) and management (one person), along with a large estate car with U-Haul trailer for the equipment and road crew (two persons). These were to be commandeered upon arrival at an airport, with all tour equipment flown as extra luggage. At the time there was a standard charge of $10 for every extra piece of baggage. All our equipment could be freighted from East Coast to West for less than $1,000, but incurred a pretty irritated crowd of passengers behind us in the check-in, and a less than thrilled airline representative at the desk.

I distinctly remember our first trip from LA to San Francisco, up the Pacific Coast Highway. It not only had stunning views (and still does, despite the scenery’s worrying habit of regularly dislodging itself on to the road below), but thanks to California’s ever-changing local FM radio, our quest had a fantastically diverse soundtrack.

We stopped at Nepenthe, the renowned hippy restaurant in Big Sur, where every proper rock band had stopped before us. Astonishingly, it’s still there, now run by the children and grandchildren of the people who gave us dinner that night. I know this because we called in on our way back to LA from Pebble Beach last year. It doesn’t seem quite so cool now, with lots of hippy jewellery, crystals and tie-dyed T-shirts for the tourists, but then I suppose my fashion tastes have changed a fair bit as well.

Another band we spent time with was Alice Cooper. This comprised not only Alice and his band mates, but also a glass tank with a large snake in residence, which was part of the stage show. I’m not sure how well the chambermaids felt about this, but probably better than the ones at the Edgewater Inn in Seattle. The story is that Led Zeppelin took advantage of the opportunity to fish out of the hotel window. Having caught a small shark they carefully installed it in the bed, and covered it with a sheet. I think they were on the “Not Welcome” list for some time.

Backstage was fun. In San Francisco we were support act to Big Brother and the Holding Company, Janis Joplin’s original Band. We met Janis in the band room and Roger Waters politely offered her a swig from the bottle of Southern Comfort he happened to be carrying. She drank the lot in one hit…Coincidental with an upturn in our musical fortunes, our American driving opportunities improved. Among other things, it enabled us to be based in LA, and luxury of luxuries, for each of us to have individual rental cars. In a fog of awful American rubbish, the ones that stand out are classics like the Mustang and, later, the Chevrolet Camaro Z28. This was living the dream.

Truly appalling gas mileage, coupled with the mind-jarring clatter of crude suspension over freeway expansion joints and the potholes of Sunset Strip certainly supplied authenticity. I mean, this was the road to Malibu… And, when you got to wherever it was you were going, there would be valet parking to ensure you never even had to select reverse gear and engineer a parking manoeuvre that would have been easier in a London bus. (Oddly, the ultimate rental at the time was from Europe, in the shape of a Mercedes 450SL, but it just didn’t have that rumbling American exhaust note.)

It was also important not to get carried away with these cars, and start importing them back home. Just as that bottle of Retsina tasted wonderful on a romantic Greek island, but had a whiff of disinfectant back in north London, so that groovy 1970s muscle car became a bit of an embarrassment on Camden High Street. Better by far to do a road trip with a Winnebago and bring that back for use in the paddock at Silverstone.

Some of my fondest memories of US motoring involve the wonderful networking available from fellow enthusiasts. My first contact in the early 1970s was with a wonderful Aston Martin enthusiast called Charlie Turner, based in Atlanta, Georgia I think, who had a sister car to mine. I still remember that first tentative phone call when he asked how he would recognise me. I described my really rather unsuitable outfit, which at the time involved snakeskin boots, William Morris print trousers and a kaftan. He cheerily told me to look for a typical large redneck driving a pick-up.

From then on a list of recommended contacts would provide unlimited opportunities to drool over fabulous car collections, drive great cars, and eat out at the best restaurants. Happily, it’s an arrangement that continues to this day, and I wouldn’t dream of spending time in LA without contacting at least two car enthusiast friends for exactly the same sort of experience. The city’s reputation as nirvana for petrol-heads is entirely appropriate. But I digress.

There was also a delightful period in the mid-1970s, where we had a few shows in Scottsdale, Arizona. The local car company rented out dune buggies, which was a new experience for all of us. Inevitably, half a dozen of the band entourage headed to the desert to re-create the famous – and notorious – Baja 1000 race. After a series of (mis)adventures we had left a number of hors de combat vehicles behind, and made it home in a couple that were still running.

Unfortunately, we were completely unable to describe to the rental people where it was we had left the others. “By a large cactus” just didn’t seem adequate. I think they were duly recovered over the following months. The other memorable aspect of this particular city was that the Police Department’s traffic division had been equipped somewhat improbably with DeLoreans, and delighted in any excuse for even a modest chase to flex their under-used motoring muscle.

“San Francisco was even more exciting musically for Pink Floyd than LA”
San Francisco was even more exciting musically for Pink Floyd than LA. At Bill Graham’s Fillmore and Winterland venues, we were part of a line-up that included Janis Joplin, Richie Havens and Santana. Due to all too frequent chemical ingestion by some parties, it was prudent not to accept a ride, and far better to leave the psychedelically decorated Porsches in the garages. Then as now, it’s advisable to do any spirited grand touring well out of town, and the drive to the glorious Napa Valley wine country and coastal Monterey really is as uplifting as you’ll have heard or read. Reunited with Highway One, this truly is Ferrari territory, ideally driving a short wheelbase 1961 250 GT California Spider, roof down.

Due to shortages of this particular model, Ferrari has kindly done the right thing and produced the ultimate successor in the shape of the all-new California. With the cleverest drop top in existence, a new engine (turbocharged!), and a wonderfully commodious cabin, this really is a worthy substitute. And besides, there’s a lot more room to get those cases of local wine on board.

From issue 24, March 2014

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