Sunday, April 13, 2014

Vox in Erith.


Mystery around the Erith KFC Drive Through (not “thru” as they put on their dismal sign) deepens. Only weeks after they were thwarted by concerted local action from increasing their opening hours to make them a twenty four hour concern, I have been getting reports that customers visiting the fast food outlet have been told “we’ve got no coffee today”, or “we’ve run out of onion rings”. This almost unheard of in a large franchise chain. On top of this, I was walking past the place on Wednesday morning; I was pleased to see that the notice announcing the application for 24/7 opening had finally been taken down from the front window, but I was also surprised to see a prominent notice on the main door which said “No credit or debit cards accepted”. This set alarm bells ringing. The lack of stock, followed by only accepting cash sales is a classic indicator of a business with severe cash flow problems. The refusal to accept credit or debit cards usually indicates that the bank has placed restrictions on the franchises’ line of credit, or it can mean that the business is being kept open as a going concern whilst a buyer is found – the bank may be selling the business to recoup money invested in it. Either way, I would not be surprised to see Erith KFC come under new ownership in the near future. I am reliably informed that there are usually two to three serious contenders for every major fast food franchise outlet. In hindsight, the application for round the clock opening may have been a desperate final attempt to make more money. I would imagine overheads for the business are high, and I think the amount of business it currently transacts is probably not high enough to support it. I will be keeping a close eye on Erith KFC over the coming weeks.

On a further food related topic, I was astonished to read the News Shopper story of an Erith based illegal Tofu factory. One somehow expects to hear of cannabis farms in factory units and the like, but an illegal Tofu factory is rather too “John Lewis” to be happening locally. I hear that the factory was located in an industrial unit on the Hailey Road Industrial Estate (which to my mind is rather more Thamesmead than Erith, but I digress). The place was infested with rats, and had raw effluent flooding the floor. Health inspectors visited the premises on two occasions, closing it on the first, only to find it open and trading, despite the ban, only a couple of weeks later. Councillor Gareth Bacon was quoted as saying “The thought that food made in these illegal and completely inappropriate conditions could have found its way into our residents' shopping is horrifying”. Quite; I think it more likely that the Tofu was more likely to be consumed elsewhere, rather than by local residents. Whilst I am quite sure there are people – myself included, who are quite partial to some Tofu in a curry or the occasional stir – fry, it is not something that really strikes me as a local staple food. It may well be some poor unfortunates in other parts of the country that suffer because of the criminal actions of some local chancers.  It will be interesting to see if any legal actions ever arise as a result of food poisoning as a result of eating any of the illegally  manufactured produce.

Walking along Bexleyheath Broadway last Saturday morning did give me the impression that the local economy may finally be picking up. A year or so ago, and something in the region of a quarter of all shop units were boarded up and empty. I would say that now it is more like one in six units – still a depressing figure, but slightly better than of yore. New businesses are opening in the town, albeit slowly and cautiously, which is I suppose to be understood. The old Kimberley HiFi store – something of a stalwart of the Broadway, until the company suddenly went bust a couple of years ago has now found new life as a Games Workshop outlet – a unusual choice of venue, but judging by the numbers of people in the store, it appears to be experiencing a healthy trade. Further Westwards along the Broadway, the former “Laughing Buddha” Chinese restaurant, that had been looking increasingly shabby and unloved over the years, has now re – opened as “Pradas Bar and Grill” – a Turkish / Mediterranean themed restaurant. Their website is pleasant enough, with a relatively straightforward menu, but when I checked their recent “Scores on the Doors” inspection, I discovered that Prada only scored two out of a possible five stars for food hygiene, and this is only weeks after the place opened!  I wonder if the owners have carried on using the old Laughing Buddha kitchen installation, which I seem to recall was inherited from an even older Indian restaurant that occupied the site in the late 1980’s. I wonder if in trying to save money and cut corners, the owners of Prada have actually shot themselves in the foot. I am a keen supporter of independent local businesses, but it is very difficult to do so when they ignore the basics of cleanliness.  If you want high quality Turkish / Anatolian food, served from top class hygienic kitchens at a reasonable price, and don’t mind a bit of travel, I can highly recommend the Tas group of restaurants.


Regular readers may recall that I have shown that Erith has over the years been a pioneer in the fields of science and engineering. The first working motor car was built and tested in Erith (in Manor Road, to be precise); the first practical fully automatic machine gun was invented and manufactured in Erith, and the world’ s first heavier than air flying vehicle was invented in Erith, and test flown in Crayford. The first ever submarine to successfully fire a torpedo whilst submerged was also designed in Erith, but built in Sweden.  If this was not enough, I have been in consultation with local historian Ken Chamberlain in respect of the Vickers factory which used to be located in Nordenfeldt Road, off West Street. The photo above shows the factory in or about 1916; I have extracted it from a scan of the documentation which Ken kindly supplied of the auctioneer’s paperwork which accompanied the sale of the factory to Vickers in 1916. The factory had several owners over its life; after Vickers no longer had need of it, the place was sold to a company called Elizabethan Electronics, who made radios and record players primarily for domestic use; when the company relocated to a new factory in Romford in the early 1960’s the place was sold on to Jennings Musical Industries (JMI), a company that was soon to be better known by the name of their best known products – the Vox range of guitar amplifiers. Founder Thomas Walter Jennings started the business in Dartford in 1958, when he took a prototype guitar amplifier which had been demonstrated to him by big band guitarist and Belvedere resident Dick Denney two years earlier, and turned it into a working, commercial product – the Vox AC-15. The AC-15 was almost immediately purchased by Hank Marvin, and the unique sound of the Shadows was down primarily to the use of Vox amplification. Soon after, the “British Invasion” of the early 60’s was under way, powered almost exclusively by Vox amplifiers. Keeping it local, Dartford’s own Rolling Stones used Vox, as did The Kinks, The Yardbirds, and in what was one of the very earliest pieces of celebrity product placement, Vox amplifiers were promoted and exclusively used by the Beatles, after manager Brian Epstein negotiated a deal – one which greatly benefitted JMI, who were pretty much called Vox by this point. As the audiences for gig got bigger, and the venue sizes increased, the need for more powerful amplification became evident – the 15 Watt AC-15 was not powerful enough; JMI effectively nailed two AC-15 amps together to create their all time classic Vox AC-30 amplifier – a model still in production to this day. Contemporary musicians who employ the AC-30 include Brian May of Queen, who was the first person to create a “wall” of AC-30’s to create his unique and totally distinctive sound; Tom Petty, Rory Gallagher, Pete Townshend, Ritchie Blackmore, Mark Knopfler, Paul Weller, and the Edge of U2 – pretty much all of rock royalty use or have used Vox amplification.  JMI also manufactured guitars, many of which were technically ground breaking – including active pickups, and built in sound effects – the down side of this was that they tended to be heavy and ugly, and did not pick up many celebrity users. JMI / Vox also invented the Wah Wah pedal – most famously used by Jimi Hendrix, and the fuzztone distortion pedal used by Jimmy Page, then of the Yardbirds, and soon to be of Led Zeppelin. Vox / JMI also created the very first wireless microphone system, early models of which gained a reputation from picking up interference from nearby mini cab radios. Another very successful and influential product made by JMI / Vox at Erith was the Vox Continental electronic organ, which most famously featured on “The House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals, and “Riders on the Storm” by the Doors (actually, pretty much any Doors track heavily features the Vox Continental – it was integral to their sound). You can see a very young Eric Burdon with the Animals and Alan Price on keyboard duties, playing "House of the Rising Sun" complete with Vox Continental organ and Vox amplification (OK, I know they are miming in this early video, but the audio was originally recorded with all Vox kit). This was released back in 1964 and still sounds stunning today.



John Lennon used the continental when playing live, both with the Beatles, and later when performing solo. JMI sold production rights to the Vox Continental to an Italian company in 1967; the build quality of the Continental markedly declined from then on, and users soon switched to other keyboards. Consequently, early, Erith built Continentals now attract premium prices on the collectors market. I understand that the Erith Vox factory received regular visits from the musicians who used their products; I have heard uncorroborated reports that both the Rolling Stones and the Beatles made appearances on the factory floor on at least one occasion each. I wonder if any reader has any knowledge of this, or even a contemporary photograph? If so, please drop me a line to hugh.neal@gmail.com – you would receive a full credit for any information you could provide. JMI / Vox became victims of their own success; they grew vastly in size and turnover over a period of around five years; in order to raise working capital, Thomas Jennings sold his controlling interest in the business to the Royston Group – an early venture capital organisation; after disagreements with the direction the company was going – mainly in respect of cost cutting moves to increase profitability (using cheaper materials in the manufacture of the AC-30 amplifier, which adversely affected performance and reliability), Jennings left JMI / Vox in 1967. The company battled on for several more years, changing hands a number of times.  Vox had a major new competitor in the amplifier market  - Marshall, who by the early 1970’s had overtaken Vox as the biggest makers of guitar amplifiers. Nowadays you think of a live rock gig and you automatically think of rows of Marshall stack amplifiers (of course, all turned up to 11, but that is another story). Few know the real story of how Vox conquered the musical world in a few short years, and changed popular music for ever. All from a dusty old former machine gun factory off West Street in Erith.


Very late last week, I received an Email from local bus and transport historian Dana Whiffen, who had the following piece prepared for the Maggot Sandwich - unfortunately the blog had already "gone to press", so the article has been held over for this week. You can read the full piece here:- "AEC REGENT III Known as the RT type London Transport Bus is 75 years old. The double-decker RT bus was jointly produced by AEC and London Transport. It became the standard London Bus during the 1950’s holding it’s own against other buses in the fleet until the seventies when the popular Routemaster took over as the main fleet bus as RT’s were slowly withdrawn. An experimental RT1 was tested with a different body in 1939 before an order was placed for 150 buses, in 1942 RT’s numbered RT2 to RT151 were delivered with further orders being held until after the war when post war production had resumed and although with a some modifications and bodies built by several different companies such as Weyman and Saunders they continued to be made and delivered up to numbered RT 4825. In addition 1,631 RTL’s were built for London Transport these buses were identical except they were built by Leyland and therefore had a Leyland engine and different radiator grill, London Transport also had 500 of a wider version delivered these were known as RTW and they were 8 foot wide instead of 7 foot 6 inches. The RTW looked similar to the Routemaster from the rear and had the same grill/radiator as the RTL as it was built by Leyland also. Erith and surrounding areas saw these well built and reliable buses dominate most routes with the occasional RTL until the Routemaster began to take over some routes in the early to mid seventies, the last RT running on 7th April 1979. In addition to the red London Buses, London Transport also had green livery in the form of London Country and Greenline these ran on services that linked London with the surrounding Counties. The London Country had 401 plus numbers and the Greenline had 701+ route numbers. RT1 which was a prototype and ran with a TD bus body, it is now preserved as RT1 although it has been amalgamated with RT1420 and is now housed at Brooklands London Bus Museum and the last RT built RT4825 is preserved at the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden. There are many other preserved RT & RTL and a few RTW buses running in both red and green livery at heritage events in and around London throughout the year, proving that in their 75th year since RT1 was tested it was an amazing success and superb bus, which is confirmed by the large number preserved and in use throughout the world".


The popular press have been making much of the story as to how Microsoft are ending support for the Windows XP operating system. Bearing in mind XP was released back in 2001, it has had an incredibly long and productive life. I can think of no other operating system that has lasted anywhere near as long in what is essentially the same form. OK, it has had a few service packs and incessant patches, but under the bonnet, it is pretty much what it was when it was first released.  A lot of people have been vocal about wanting to retain XP – and indeed you can – it is not being “switched off” or anything dramatic like that – it is merely no longer going to receive patches or upgrades. Over time, less new software will work on XP, until the point it no longer is a viable environment. This is all a normal kind of transition; I think some less technologically inclined people are somewhat resistant to change, as they don’t want to have to learn a new system. I recall attending the UK launch of Windows XP, which was held at the Royal Festival Hall in the Autumn of 2001. I was able to wangle a ticket to the event courtesy of my employers – I was able to charge the event to “research and development”. I was sat in the main amphitheatre in the hall, along with several hundred journalists, techies and assorted freeloaders. The event was all very theatrical, with a big musical build up (which made me cringe), then a video screen sprang into life with the face of Steve Ballmer, then President of Microsoft appearing on it. He started a speech in which he said he was sorry he could not be in the UK for the event, but a taped piece would have to do instead. Just as the video neared the end, Ballmer came running down from the back of the auditorium, yelling and hollering like a WWE wrestler. I was sat on the end of a row. Had I had a few seconds’ warning of the approaching billionaire heffalump, I could have stuck my leg out and he would have gone flying! As it was Ballmer made the stage in one piece and proceeded to expound the virtues of the then brand new operating system. The rest, as they say, is history.

As mentioned earlier in this update, Erith has been the location for an astonishing number of world changing inventions. It is unfortunate that prime amongst these is one that will forever be associated with the carnage in the trenches of the First World War. Hiram Maxim, the American born, naturalised Briton who invented the eponymous Maxim machine gun had his factory at Erith; later it merged with the larger Vickers company to become Vickers Maxim and went on to produce the most heavily used machine gun of WW1. It was responsible for more deaths in combat than any other weapon at the time. What a lot of people don’t realise is that the biggest killer of World War One was not a weapon at all, it was a disease. More people died during the great flu pandemic of 1918 than died as part of the conflict itself. Figures are somewhat vague, but it is estimated that five hundred million people around the world  became infected with the H1N1 influenza virus, of these, between fifty to one hundred million ended up dying; at the time this was between three and five percent of the world population, making it the deadliest natural disaster in recorded history.  What was especially unusual about the outbreak was that the victims were mainly young, normally fit people, rather than the elderly and infirm. The reason for this was that the H1N1 virus caused a massive over – reaction in the body’s auto immune system. The strong immune systems in healthy people were thus far worse affected than those in elderly people or infants, and consequently more people at the prime of their lives ended up dying. To maintain wartime morale, British and allied censors removed almost all references to the horrendous flu outbreak in newspaper stories featuring the UK, Germany, France and the USA, and instead focussed on flu stories in the then neutral Spain. Consequently the outbreak nowadays gets called the Spanish Flu, when in fact the terrible effects were felt all around the world.

The end video this week is a short documentary film on the resurgence of interest in vinyl over CD for a certain type of music lover. A file format that only a few short years ago was thought to have been consigned to the annals of history has made a comeback. Whilst vinyl will never be the mainstream musical format that it once was, it is popular enough to support a number of specialist record shops. I must admit that I prefer vinyl over digital formats. The human ear is analogue, and in my opinion, best suited to analogue sources. Do feel free to leave a comment below, or Email hugh.neal@gmail.com