Genius, Musician and Friend

Simon H Fell 1958-2020 untold school days stories

Simon was an old boy of Batley Grammar School, known as a prestigious place, in the heart of the Heavy Woollen District of West Yorkshire.  It had a reputation for educating the wealthy and the industrious since its establishment by the Reverend William Lee in 1612.

I got to know Simon Fell in our late teenage years, as more pupils dropped music for productive and potentially more lucrative subjects. Music classes were rationalised, and we were inevitably thrown together to form a class of two studying “O” and later Advanced Levels.

Simon and I were complimentary in many ways prompting our teacher Mr Goldthorpe to remark that together we would make a perfect student. My essays on music history and analysis were completely illiterate, but my knowledge of harmony and ability to follow simple musical rules of thumb meant I would often turn in exercises that would be given a 9 or 10 out of 10. Simon was a deliberate rule breaker, received mediocre and even poor marks in harmony, but his verbal and written skills were very good as he was a prolific reader, had a huge knowledge of his subject and kept up to date across all genres of modern music. He even devised an introduction to contemporary music course for me and our mutual school mate Stewart.

Setting up a contemporary music society with the school

The contemporary music course ran weekly and introduced us to new composers and styles. Penderecki, Stockhausen, Cage, Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Charles Ives, Boulez, and many others. Stewart and I were hooked, and this initial course then led on to the formation of a Contemporary Music Group that involved other interested peers and artistic pseuds. All very radical and great fun, challenging the establishment at a time when the seeds of punk rock music had been sown in London and had taken root in northern cities like Manchester and Leeds.

The most demanding musically was trying to play one of Roberto Gerard’s Zodiac pieces, but the most rebellious “happening” was John Cage Variations IV exploring spatial soundscapes, inside and outside of an auditorium. I seem to remember a stochastic element to the piece where dots and lines were scattered onto the score and various musicians then dispatched to play sounds in different parts of the school. It was not long after an horrendous hullabaloo had been created in one of the corridors that the headmaster paid a visit to find what was going on.

The musicians were confident that John Cage’s credentials would give us total immunity from any punishment, so we told him straight!

“It’s Cage’s Variations number 4. Do you know it?”

Ian Fallows the headmaster was confused, not deterred by his ignorance, he continued with his challenge: “But is it music?”

After a short philosophical debate, Variations IV ended abruptly which is what John Cage would have wanted. This “happening” provided the impetus and excuse for many more adventures with unplanned outcomes in the future.

Simon see here conducting his own composition with scratch orchestra and graphic score.
Photograph by Simon Fallows: Simon Fell conducting his own composition with scratch orchestra and graphic score

Breaking into the local improvised music scene

The Leeds Musician Collective was a vehicle for Simon and myself to taste university culture and be apprentice experimental musicians. How Simon found out about this obscure group I have no idea. One day I remember what seemed like an innocent question was in fact part of a long-term strategy for Simon’s development.

“Are you interested in playing free-form improvisation Vic?”

“Yes, I suppose so, well I dunno, what do you mean?”

I was in from that day onwards. Regular Friday night visits were made to the Pack Horse Inn, opposite Leeds University, to various guest acts in the upstairs room at the pub. A couple of very serious young hippy blokes were in charge and did regular duo acts with sax and guitar. Occasionally Simon and I were invited to join in. There were two rules to follow with improvisation; don’t play any tunes (this would infuriate the organisers), be obscure and far out if possible.

The Leeds Musicians’ Collective met upstairs at the Pack Horse pub in 1976

The most interesting memorable evenings at Pack Horse were when famous guests came to perform. I remember seeing Derek Bailey, Fred Frith, Evan Parker, and Lol Coxhill up close, which was a thrill.

Lol Coxhill having arrived late for the show and apologised saying he had just been on stage with The Damned, at a gig in town.  He did his short set and just before closing time, looking a bit alcohol fuelled, he invited us all to get our instruments and join in. Announcing “It’s in C Sharp”, we all started laughing and then all started playing.

Fred Frith (prepared guitar) and Evan Parker (circular breathing on Tenor Sax) stand out the most for me for their originality and musical technique.

During this period Simon had lined up a gig at Leeds University Students’ Union Ball and invited me to be in the line-up. I just jumped in with both feet and on the day of the gig I was no wiser about what was going to happen, having pressed Simon most of the day. By the end of school, we wondered round the playing fields where I learned that “Ganders” was going to play the Sax, he was going to play the Double Bass, while I was expected to bring only a Trombone mouthpiece!

“I didn’t even know Ganders could play the Sax”

“Well, he can make a noise and move the keys quickly. It sounds like jazz”

At the show I was presented with a hose pipe, watering can, some glass bottles and a hammer. The stage had been set for me to do a performance art masterpiece, accompanied by relentless jazz babbling in the background. There is probably no way I would have able to pull this off unless I had been tricked into it. Armed with the confidence gained in Simon’s training programme we pulled off a real happening that was humorous and well received by the drunk students that were out for having a good time.

The performance did get some negative reviews from the Leeds Musicians’ Collective senior members who thought the irreverent and anarchic content could “only be done once” and was not necessarily a good advertisement for a serious University society.

It was shortly after this sensational performance that Simon and I were invited to London to play at an international festival musicians’ collective. This was hosted by the London Collective based in a derelict factory in Primrose Hill.

We had managed to arrange a free stop over with a friend of a friend in London which was incredibly exciting for a 17-year-old teenager’s first visit to London unsupervised. More surprises were in store before our performance. I was taken aback when I met Simon at Leeds Rail Station.

“Where’s your Bass?”

“I thought I would play the piano at the venue” was his confident reply.

I had brought my Trombone which was in a large wooden case the size of a small coffin, I decided to rough it with just a toothbrush in my pocket and no overnight bag. In contrast Simon had a medium sized old fashioned brown suitcase looking very stylish and would have looked at home waiting for a train in a 1940’s film like “Brief Encounter”.

We stayed in a flat not far from the Sir Henry Cooper Pub down the Old Kent Road, so we had quite a journey to get to the venue. On the day of the gig Simon insisted we had breakfast on the go which consisted of chocolate cup-cakes so we could get across London for our gig slot in the afternoon.

Renovated site of the former London Musicians’ Collective

It was the big moment. We were on. Simon sat at the piano, and I got my Trombone out and waited for his lead. After a few moments silence. He stood up quickly grabbed his trusty suitcase and emptied the ­­­contents onto the strings of the open grand piano with a Forte-Fortissimo crash. Everyone was totally shocked, especially me, I felt like the floor had given away.

Simon had created a makeshift prepared piano in the blink of an eye with the secret content of his overnight case. There was an absence of toiletries and clothes, instead a pandora’s box of children’s toys; dinky cars, trains, dolls, teddy bears, candlesticks and various tools randomly scattered, which Simon sprang to immediate action organising and tinkering with, to create quiet taps and plucks.

I remember thinking “What the hell I am going to do”? I didn’t feel I could solo over this, so turned my attention to knocking out my first toothbrush and trombone accompaniment as best I could.

Years later I went to see Simon performing one of his own works at Leeds University (Kaleidozyklen[1]), Double Bass Concerto with 2 conductors and concertante groups, BBC Radio 3 there making a recording and I did get a chance to say hello and a brief chat, however being the star soloist, he was clearly in demand and had little time for me that evening. An interesting performance with one of the orchestras getting lost which caused some confusion. Simon made some interesting hand signals at the end to bring everyone into line, at the same time keeping the solo line going. I found it extremely entertaining.

However, he did say “Some of these youngsters haven’t really got a clue about modern music. During rehearsals I was telling the pianist to get into the piano. He just looked at me confused. I told him again, lift the lid and get in the f-ing piano!”

Extending and subverting the School music scene

Simon and I were press ganged into joining the school choir, our music teacher insisted that this was mandatory for anyone studying A level music. The School was always short of Basses since many of the old boys in school felt they had better things to do with their time.

We both developed a passion for trying out new instruments and we both tried our hand at learning unpopular instruments within different families, Simon took up the Eb Tuba because few children in the school could lift it, let alone play a note on it. He became quickly proficient and was able to hold his own in the brass ensemble. I took up the viola as no one else had hands big enough or the motivation to learn the Alto Clef.

Each summer the school would work up various performances from the range instrumental groups to enter the Ilkley Music festival.

This was billed as an important regional event so in our final year at school Simon and I would be in the Choir, Orchestra, Wind Band, and Brass Ensemble.

Having managed get as far as the Tune a Day Book 2 on the viola within a few months. There was the potential to form a school string quartet! Simon was aware of the American minimalists and had discovered a string quartet piece that would be well within our reach.

John Dyson was a competent fiddle player, and headteacher’s son Simon Fallows[2] was up to his Grade V on the Cello. These musicians were persuaded to form the experienced backbone of “The John Dyson String Quartet” as it became known. Simon sourced a spare violin from the school music room and rehearsal began with the aim of entering the chamber music competition at the Ilkley Music Festival.

The John Dyson String Quartet, Bond Street, Birstall (Left to right: John Dyson, Vic Berry, Simon Fallows, Simon H Fell) (photo by Stewart Ullyott)

Our collective ambition was to bring a memorable avantgarde experience to this parochial audience. Ilkley is a sleepy spa town situated in Wharfedale at the foot of the Yorkshire moors where in the Wintergarden Hall and All Saints’ Church one would expect the polite restrained string music of Mozart or Haydn.

Simon had found a String Quartet by Terry Jennings in one his modern music tomes, the entire piece only consisted of about 20 long sustained string chords over about 30 minutes. Between some of the chords there were long periods of between about 20 seconds and 2 minutes. To qualify for the competition’s strict rules Simon had suggested we play the last section which consisted of just 6 chords with a couple of silences thrown in. Each chord or silence was strictly timed using a stop clock borrowed from the school physics lab.

I remember having only 2 notes to play in the entire extract and went to Leeds to buy a viola mute for just a single artificial harmonic note. Very difficult for a beginner, I needed a small piece of masking tape to indicate my fingering on the night.

It was a nerve-racking affair for the John Dyson String Quartet which did provoke the outrage we were craving despite being upstaged by a splendid mix wind ensemble playing a brilliant jazzy original piece which was a pleasant surprize and deserved the 1st prize award.

Terry Jennings String Quartet 1960

Simon had found a String Quartet by Terry Jennings in one his modern music tomes, the entire piece only consisted of about 20 long sustained string chords over about 30 minutes. Between some of the chords there were long periods of between about 20 seconds and 2 minutes. To qualify for the competition’s strict rules Simon had suggested we play the last section which consisted of just 6 chords with a couple of silences thrown in. Each chord or silence was strictly timed using a stop clock borrowed from the school physics lab.

I remember having only 2 notes to play in the entire extract and went to Leeds to buy a viola mute for just a single artificial harmonic note. Very difficult for a beginner, I needed a small piece of masking tape to indicate my fingering on the night.

It was a nerve-racking affair for the John Dyson String Quartet which did provoke the outrage we were craving despite being upstaged by a splendid mix wind ensemble playing a brilliant jazzy original piece which was a pleasant surprize and deserved the 1st prize award.

The John Dyson Quartet performance was undeniably shaky. Prompting a small child asking, “What going on Daddy?” with him hissing “shut up!”.

At the end of the performance the competition judge gave a quick synopsis of each performance and their marks when he came to the John Dyson Quartet, he said he was going to mark this piece, but looked at his watch for 20 seconds instead. There were a few giggles around the audience which gave us the opportunity to walk out with indignation having secured the negative reaction we were expecting.

Back at school the next day the music teacher was not impressed by the way the John Dyson String Quartet had been treated and was up for submitting a formal complaint to the festival organisers. The judge had given us a fair written report of our performance so this offer was declined.

The Skipton Anecdote

Simon’s Dad gave us a lift to Skipton College. We were both to spend the weekend working with impromptu orchestra and violin soloist to play an Arthur Butterworth concerto. We were packed into a Renault 4 with Double Bass, a large metal bassist highchair, and the trombone (the coffin). We swiftly arrived in Skipton town centre and were dropped off. Unfortunately, the college was a few miles north, outside of the town.

I remember thinking it was a bit like Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in the film “Some Like it Hot”. Before the invention of the mobile phone, we were stuck, since the buses only ran about twice a day. Simon suggested we hitch-hike. I thought this was crazy, but we started walking north, I was carrying his chair and the trombone, and Simon had his double bass.

It was a real struggle to travel a hundred yards. It seemed like a miracle when someone stopped for us. Another musician going to the same event. The driver was too confident that their car was going to be able to fit us both in with our equipment, but after some minutes working out a solution, we were off and at the college tout suite.

Gangrene Hath Deprived me (of a leg)

It was time when Simon and I were furiously writing music and we collaborated on Gangrene Hath Deprived Me, a piece of music written quickly taking turns to write a few bars or a section over a couple of days and then passing the score between us several times in the week until it was finished. The title was inspired by our studies of early music as part of the school curriculum, we were both amused by the Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623) “Death Hath Deprived Me” and the inglorious death of Jean Baptist Lulley who had bashed his toe with a staff whilst bashing out the beat for the dancers.

Originally scored for the school brass ensemble, I discovered the signed piano reduction in my possession

Futurist, Scarborough

Simon disappeared one school holiday, no one seemed to know where he was. Come September he reappeared. He had been playing the summer season at the Futurist, three shows a day! He said he felt he knew how to play jazz now and could play B flat and F for over 150 bars in his sleep. I was really impressed with his commitment to developing his skills.

The Jellies

I had enjoyed being invited into the Jellies Punk band, and deserve a brief mention here. Simon had arranged this since he was involved in the early stages of the group. but he had quickly moved on since he was more interested in playing one chord funk than in a Ramones/Velvet Underground style garage band.


[1] http://www.brucesfingers.co.uk/info/biog.html

[2] Simon Fallows sadly died 2009

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