Back at the start of the nineties I played bass in a band called Cloudscape. Four white blokes and a drum machine, that was us. Between indie kids ditching fake Manchester accents for newer cockney ones, there was the short lived shoegaze scene. It was a bit of a blink and you missed it moment. My Bloody Valentine kicked the whole shebang off with ‘89s Isn’t Anything, and ended it all a couple of years later with their epic album, Loveless. That’s the train that Cloudscape desperately wanted to hitch themselves to.
I couldn’t play bass, I’d never even picked one up, but the singer who wasn’t so much a singer as someone who really wanted to be a front man, had asked me to join his band. So I thought, ‘fuck it, why not?’ I was wearing a Moose T-shirt and had the right sort of hairstyle. I looked like a bass player in a shoegaze band. So I was in.
It didn’t go well. We were at the arse-end of something that was rapidly going out of fashion. We rehearsed, I was awful, I’m not a natural musician, which I learned the hard way. We never played live. I fell out with the drum machine, and that was that.
Anyway, through being in Cloudscape I started hanging out with their circle of friends. The singer who couldn’t sing was called Robert, the guy who wrote the music was Ross, the other guitarist was Rob who had a sister called Alison, who was friends with Tim, Clare, Cathy and Steph. Steph was in an on/off relationship with this guy called Neil. That’s how I first met Neil Knowlden.
Neil had been in the year above me at school, grew up in the same area of Basildon that I had, frequented The Pink Toothbrush in Rayleigh and to top it all off even worked for the same company as me, Our Price Records. Yet despite all of that we’d never bumped into each other. Once we did finally meet though we hit it off quickly. Neil was the sort of guy that got along with everyone, happy-go-lucky I’d guess you’d call him.
He liked a drink and smoked like a chimney. Almost all of my memories of Neil involve him drinking or being hung over. He had a great mop of mousy-blonde hair that hung over his eyes and to me he looked like Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis crossed with Tim Roth.
I ended up working with Neil on and off for the next six or seven years. First at Our Price Romford, then at one of the Basildon Our Prices and eventually the hell on earth that was Virgin Basildon. It wasn’t unheard of for Neil to arrive at work reeking of booze and begging for a 10 a.m. lunch. As I said he liked a drink did Neil. Being over twenty years ago my memories of that time are a little hazy, and most nights out have bled into one another. One thing I do remember very clearly though was that Neil was by far and away the worst person I ever knew when it came to money. It ran through his fingers like sand. Wages were blown on weekend binges. We once almost ended up buying a flat in Pitsea together. Neil’s credit rating was so bad though that we couldn’t get a mortgage.
Like all of us back then Neil had a huge love of music. It was the glue that held all of our friendships together. His tastes changed as the bands he liked became popular. He would always champion the underdog, becoming bored with bands once the general public began to catch on. I was working with him at Romford Our Price when Smells Like Teen Spirit was released. We all loved Nirvana back then, Sliver being a guaranteed floor filler down The Toothbrush. Neil frantically cut open the new release boxes, found a copy of Teen Spirit, rushed over to the deck and slapped it on as loud as possible. He loved the single and the album it was lifted from, Nevermind, until it became obvious that everyone else did too. After that he moved onto Mercury Rev, Helmet and Monster Magnet. I remember him having quite a thing for those early ravey XL Records too.
I have quite a few of Neil’s records in my collection. Why? Well whenever we were out, Neil would inevitably end up skint well before the night was through. I’d buy him a couple of beers, but he’d always want to borrow money for more drinks, a cab ride home or that all important egg-burger and chips after The Toothbrush had shut it’s doors for the night. He never had any cash to pay me back, so he used to give me records he didn’t want anymore instead.
In 1992 we all went to the Reading Festival. Well all of us except Steph. I don’t think camping was really Steph’s thing. That was the year Nirvana headlined the final day and were absolutely awful. We woke up that morning to find the campsite under a foot of water. Neil ate a massive lump of dope on the first morning and passed out in his tent. He saw one band during the whole festival, Leatherface. That’s so typically Neil. Although to be fair he did spend a lot of time in the comedy tent. I remember watching Frank Sidebottom with him and both of us laughing until we cried. Thinking back on it now, it’s obvious that Neil loved comedy even more than music.
Neil, Tim and I went to see The Orb at Brixton once. Neil went missing when The Orb hit the stage. He surged down to the front of the venue and me and Tim didn’t see him for the rest of the night. We were all a little the worse for wear, and it turned out that Neil had somehow managed to dance out of the exit by mistake. He tried to get back in but couldn’t, so he phoned Rob at 3 a.m. to come and pick him up, which he dutifully did. Meanwhile Tim and I spent our night looking around Brixton Academy for him, even phoning around the hospitals and police stations the following morning to try and find out what had happened.
I can’t really remember how me and Neil lost contact. It must have been when he left Virgin and was living in Wickford with Steph and their son Anthony. Sadly I think it was as simple as he lived in Wickford, I lived in Leigh, neither of us drove and we drifted apart from each other. A year or so after that I moved to Sweden and that was that.
Then one day a friend told me that Neil had died. They didn’t know anything more than that, just that he was dead. I couldn’t get my head around it. How could Neil be dead? Some people you meet in life aren’t destined to be around too long. But Neil wasn’t one of those people. After looking up old friends via Facebook I finally found out that he died due to complications arising from his asthma. I don’t even remember him having asthma. I was told he’d ballooned in weight and even needed a chair lift in his home. What an end.
Thanks to Facebook I’m now back in touch with Steph, and even Neil’s sister Angela. Last week I saw a photo of Neil in a wheelchair taken towards the end of his short life. It was that photo that made me sit down and write all this. I could still see the person who loved Count Duckula, the boy that used to throw himself around on the sticky dance floor to Mudhoney, the guy who’s New Order 12”s are next to my turntable as I write this, but he was buried beneath the outer shell of an old man. That picture was hard to look at, made my eyes fill with tears. It’s an image that I’ll never be able to unsee. I miss you Neil, and I hate that it’s too late to tell you that.