by Greg Freeman

There was a fascinating glimpse into Woking’s musical past on Saturday night when Steve Brookes – the man who formed The Jam with Paul Weller at Sheerwater school in 1971, and then quit it four years later, just as the band was about to hit the big time – appeared at the Fiery Bird live music venue in Woking to talk about those olden days.

Steve had suggested the gig as a fundraiser for the Fiery Bird, which is currently in temporary premises in the former Quake night club in the centre of Woking. The building is due to be demolished in a year or so, as part of the redevelopment of a larger area in the centre of Woking. Which will leave the Fiery Bird without a home, unless the council can help find them a new, permanent one.

He talked about meeting Paul Weller at school in Sheerwater, and quickly beginning to learn and write songs together – after being impressed that when they performed in the music room at the school one lunchtime by the fact that nearly all those that came to watch them were girls. Encouraged by Paul’s dad John, they performed their first gigs on weekday nights at Woking Working Men’s Club, just as a duo.

Why did he leave The Jam? They had been playing together for four years, almost inseparable from the ages of 13 to 17: “Paul and I just started to drift apart … it was time to go.” They were “great mates” again now, though, and Steve has played on a couple of Paul Weller albums. He also told how he persuaded Paul to join him at a charity gig a few years ago at Woking’s HG Wells Centre in aid of Woking Hospice. Steve wanted to maintain the element of surprise, so hatched plans to smuggle Paul in via the adjoining hotel. It helped that the young hotel receptionist – told that someone famous would be coming in – had no idea who Weller was when he arrived.

I could see some of Paul Weller’s mannerisms in Steve Brookes as soon as he appeared on stage –  or maybe Weller has some of his. After all, they were close companions for four years in their teens. Formative years. Brookes has a fine voice and guitar style, and entertained us with a number of tunes, covers and originals, that he and Paul played together in those early Jam years, as well as a couple of more recent ones of his own. As his website says , after a long break from performing, Steve is back playing music again.  It was an inspirational and informative evening for those who take pride in Woking’s music heritage.

Also on the bill were singer-songwriter Rebecca Jane, pictured below, with a nice line in country-influenced tunes, and the band Phoenix Chroi, headed by Elaine McGinty, pictured above, the moving spirit behind the Fiery Bird and the Phoenix Cultural Centre, along with her partner Joe Buckley, who plays bass in the band. Woking Writers Circle has strong ties with the Phoenix. I’ve read my poems at the open mic on a number of occasions over the years, and fellow WWC member Cathy Rogan has played there with her band The Ukeaholics, and more recently as part of a new ukulele duo Mother of Order.

What the Phoenix has always been about, is trying to provide a grassroots space for music and community arts in the town. The people that run Woking, the council and its officers, sometimes give the impression that they are not interested in allowing things to grow from the bottom up, but only in directing everything from the top down. As the first of Woking’s series of towers start to rise, The Jam is an example of something that grew from below, even if their Town Called Malice has seen fit to commemorate them with three giant lumps of wood. But don’t get me started …

The Fiery Bird centre remains something worth supporting, encouraging and preserving. Keep the flame alive!