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May 15

Music Behind The Lines. Gulf War 1991 – Part 1

Music Behind The Lines. Gulf War 1991 – Part 1

Leather Trousers and Choc-Chip Camouflage for tonight's set

Leather Trousers and Choc-Chip Camouflage for tonight’s set

 

So, my band and I were playing a gig in Newport, South Wales on the 17th January 1991. It was a prestigious job, in the Hilton hotel, backing all the other artists represented by our agent in a showcase designed to sell his acts and get them signed up for the summer.

On this particular night, there was a big TV set up in the lounge bar and as we took a break during the interval we saw that the first Gulf War had just begun. We were playing a few songs from our own set between the different acts and so we had a good bit of exposure for ourselves and, as we stood open-mouthed staring at the TV, our agent approached us and introduced us to an American guy. Would we like to go out there, he asked, nodding towards the screen as another missile landed and lit up the Baghdad skyline. We would need to have our whole van full of equipment ready with all the weights and serial numbers ready for customs, and tickets would be waiting for us at Heathrow’s Gulf Air Terminal in a few days time.

A bit shocked we had a quick band meeting and all scuttled off to call our parents. Of course, we said yes and the next two days were a whirlwind. We somehow finished the gig and drove back to Devon and first thing the next morning we had emptied the van out on the driveway and began collecting all the serial numbers and information we needed. Next thing I remember we were backing up the van to the doors of the Gulf Air Terminal at Heathrow while heavily armed police looked on nervously, and proceeded to place each item on the x-ray machines, and checked in the entire contents of the van in as excess baggage! I still have the ticket and I can tell you it was NOT cheap, but the US forces were paying for it so we just did as we were instructed.

We boarded the first flight to Muscat, in Oman. We were all very nervous and sat at the back of almost empty plane. The hostesses basically left us alone and we were very kindly left a trolley full of booze, which we felt obliged to make a dent in. We were laughing and joking about what we were doing, who else would head TOWARDS a war zone. It was all so strange, just a few days before we were playing in a comfy hotel, playing “El Cumbanchero” while a guy kept plates in the air while juggling ping-pong balls on a stick in his mouth. Now the Gulf War was all over the news, and we were on our way there.

After landing in Oman we watched our gear being thrown from one plane to another by the baggage handlers. We were helpless, watching like dogs looking through the window when they want to go out, looking out from a café in the airport as the drum box and guitars were dumped onto a conveyor belt that lead up to our connecting flight to Abu Dhabi. We were much more sober of thought on that flight heading up closer to the action, the only memorable moment was the feeling of uncertainty of the protocol required when knocking somebody’s turban off getting my bag from the over-head locker.

The last hop was on to Bahrain, where we were to be based for the next two months. It was at this point the reality of it struck home. A tornado from one of the coalition air-forces seemed to be accompanying our arrival, and we flew over various military installations. The scene had changed, Bahrain was charged and everybody in the airport was checking out the four hair-dyed boys with earrings and jeans and leather jackets contrasting against a sea of pristine white robed men.

We set about the process of collecting our MANY “bags” from the conveyor belt, not too shabby a task given that most of our “bags” were enormous custom-made 18″ ported bass speakers, keyboards, a drum kit and many guitars. We met with a translator who saw us through customs and was also to transport us to our base. They quarantined all the musical gear for further inspection, which would take a couple of days. For our part, we were taken to the port in Manama and, bags X-rayed, led up the gangway of a sparking white cruise ship, the Cunard Princess, that stuck out like a sore thumb along side various grey allied naval ships docked along both sides of the port.

Georges Leygues class destroyer nearby the Cunard Princess, 1991

Photo By TSGT Paul J. Page U.S. Air Force [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It was dusk by now and I could hear the eerie wailing of a call to prayer in the distance. After being allocated two cabins at opposite ends of the ship we were told to dump our bags and meet the Cruise Director.

gulf-pass

 

He showed us the night club where we would be performing on the way up to the bridge where we were introduced to the Captain and a civilian dressed Major from the US Combined Forces. We were issued ID tags and given various instructions. Ship leave was restricted to 4 hours, the time it would take to ready the ship to leave in an emergency, in which case by the time the ship was ready to leave, all personnel would be back on board. We then spent the rest of the night familiarising ourselves with various drills and the bars and food outlets available to us. There were troops already on the ship, it had arrived in the December previously and there was a great band already in the cabaret room along with a troop of dancing girls and various speciality acts. There was also a couple of comedians, one a rather brusk American guy, who hated everyone and blamed us for all manner of things that “we” the Brits were responsible for throughout history, and the other a charming lady who we were to grow very close to!!  (More on the other personnel in part 3)  We were there to play rock music in the night club.

We were introduced to a great team of Physical Training coaches who were there to keep the troops fit while on their “rest” from the theatre of war, and realised we were a small part of a group of volunteers that had chosen to come over and try to keep up morale for the real heroes, the military who were facing more horror than we could ever imagine.

We eventually found a table and ordered some drinks and sat back to watch the show in the cabaret lounge. A group of feathered dancing girls performed a big, fantastically lit opening number, then not even half way through the first act, all hell broke loose. The power was cut to emergency lighting and sirens went off. People scattered everywhere and the ship was sealed tight. Saddam had sent a scud missile up apparently, and this would happen each time he did because of the unpredictability of where it would land. We were a good few hundred miles from the action but this was real. We sat staring at each other, unsure of what to do next, but after a few nail-biting minutes, the all clear sounded and the atmosphere began to calm. We were in a war, of that there was no doubt.

The next morning, after breakfast, we were taken in a bus to the British Embassy to be fitted with gas masks and register our presence on Bahrain. We were told we had to be given a rank, as we were crew members on a ship in a war zone, and because we were musicians and not regular ship operating crew, we became “wounded officers”, second in line for evacuation after women and children in an emergency, at least that’s what we were told. I never pulled rank, just in case. We had to keep our gas masks with us at all times and were instructed in what to do should we hear the chilling alarm “GAS GAS GAS” that would scream from the ships Tannoy in the event Mr Hussain dropped any chemical weapons on us, as they had done to the Kurds already.

I swapped my leather trousers for this whole uniform, I still have it and wear the cap often

I swapped my leather trousers for this whole uniform, khaki boxers and socks included, I still have it and wear the cap often, the boxers and socks, not so.

Near to the Embassy in Manama, we were taken to – of all things – a bar. It was a kind of British Legion, with a piano at one end of a long serving bar stocked with all familiar branded beers and other liquor. The afternoon was passed in this surreal environment,. Playing the piano with a pint of John Smiths on top, in a bar on an island in the Persian Gulf, in a war zone and with a gas mask in a bag at my feet by the pedals.

Over the two months stay we would see and hear about things that no human should have to go through. Every three days a thousand troops left our ship with a hangover and another thousand arrived, fresh from the front lines. Each new group brought their stories with them, and with the help of a few Budweiser’s, eager to tell us how it really was.

Leaving some of these guys was hard.  It was very intense and easy to make good friends

Leaving some of these guys was hard. It was very intense and easy to make good friends

Our gear eventually arrived two days later and we set up and began to play three sets a day, every day for the next 60 days to a total of over twenty-two thousand war-weary allied troops…..

Do you know anybody who may have been with us on the ship? I’d love to hear from you. Use my contact form to get in touch.
Part 2 covers the more of the experience and more photos

 

 

1 comment

  1. Lynn Fenby

    Fascinated reading this Marc! I had no idea….. I remember vividly January 1991 when we went to war and how scary it was.. I was heavily pregnant with my first child and feeling very uncertain about the world i was bringing her into! Thank you for sharing your story and i look forward to Part II…..

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