The Buccaneers — Part Two
October 2008 Issue 110
Between the era of cinema sound and the big festival stacks produced by Dave Martin, Bill Kelsey and Tony Andrews, Charlie Watkins’ WEM ruled supreme.
In fact, it’s arguable that anyone with the good fortune to have been either an active musician or sound technician in the 1960s and 1970s will at some point have worked with equipment designed and manufactured by Watkins. To many, he is the ‘Father of British PA’.
Synonymous with the tape-driven Copicat echo device that lent a new dimension to guitarists and singers, his master/slave PA systems that fuelled many of the first genuine festivals, and equipment such as the WEM Audiomaster mixer, Charlie Watkins’ journey began in the Merchant Navy during the World War II, where he learned to play the accordion — still his greatest passion.
Upon discharge, he turned semi-pro and in the years that followed, his entrepreneurial spirit saw him running a record shop in Tooting Market with brother Reg, sell accordions and guitars, and make his first moves into designing amplifiers. By the mid-to-late ’50s, Watkins had introduced the Westminster, Clubman and V-fronted Dominator guitar amps to his range, as well as the first version of the best-selling Copicat.
Re-branding his business as WEM (Watkins Electric Music) in 1963, Watkins’ most significant development of the ‘Swinging Decade’ came in 1966-67 when his new master/slave PA systems made it possible for the era’s big acts to achieve power ratings of at least 1kW, and (from a sonic perspective) finally make outdoor pop credible.
While brothers Reg and Syd concentrated on the growing range of WEM instruments (the Watkins Rapier was a fine, cost-effective alternative to the more expensive Fender Strat), Charlie became more deeply involved in taking his PA products to a higher level. As was evident from the cover of their 1969 semi-live double album Ummagumma, and indeed in scenes from their Live At Pompeii movie, Pink Floyd fully embraced Watkins’ PA technology during the late ’60s and early ’70s.
As Watkins himself once observed: “When The Who came up with 1000W, the Floyd — who were the apple of my eye — wanted 2000W. It went a bit mad.”
When the Rolling Stones played their famous free concert in Hyde Park in July 1969 and required what amounted to a huge system for the time, Watkins had to borrow back equipment he had sold to other groups. “I didn’t have many columns, but I wanted to put 1500W up. I borrowed some from T-Rex. They all chipped in — that’s what we used to do. It was quite a family; if anyone had a big gig, they’d all pool their gear.”
A survivor of the proto-era of touring was legendary wireman John Thompson who had commenced working with WEM back in the ’60s. The company’s de facto column speakers, with their four Goodman or Celestion 8” twin coaxial devices, powered by the WEM PA100 main amplifier and SL100 slave, were to appear on every festival stage at that time.
Thompson had also met Harold Pendleton while working at the Marquee Club (which Pendleton also owned), thus securing him the National Jazz & Blues Festival slot in Windsor where the new columnised icon was established.
It was at this festival, in August 1967, that Fleetwood Mac made their first live appearance, powered, thanks to Watkins, by the arrival of 1kW of PA amplification. It was a bitter-sweet experience for the system’s inventor who, as a result of the stunned neighbourhood, ended up being arrested for disturbing the peace!
Although PA systems still had a long way to go, Funktion-One’s Tony Andrews, for one, remembers the huge influence of Watkins’ WEM columns. It was certainly the thrust that inspired him to manufacture, although he has nothing but praise for Watkins’ proto systems.
Says Andrews: “At this time, Charlie was using Goodmans 12” Axiom 301s, with a parasitic centre cone, loaded into the WEM columns, and when you consider the basic engineering of four identical full-range speakers in a line array, this is now quite fashionable. The box was naturally completely time-aligned.”
Possibly the most legendary WEM-driven event in rock history was the Fiery Creations-organised 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, which featured The Who, Free, The Doors, Jethro Tull, Donovan, Family, Joni Mitchell, The Moody Blues, Sly & The Family Stone and, in what was to be his final UK appearance, headliner Jimi Hendrix.
This landmark festival saw the WEM PA and ‘Festival Stack’ systems augmented by Watkins’ newly designed parabolic focusable reflector. Despite only being powered by a single Goodmans R101 10” 10W driver, it could send 1kHz-3kHz for a distance of five miles in reasonable weather conditions.
By the close of the IOW Festival of August 1970, and certainly after the tragic death of Hendrix just a few weeks later, many felt the Sixties dream had finally passed. Watkins sensed a similar malaise: “That cycle of festivals and emergence was over. It had been spoiled by over-development and too much haste to draw too many people who brought, in their train, the sociological problems of massed, varied audiences.
“Kelsey and Morris were bringing out their massive horn bins. Crown were eclipsing my little slave so I gracefully bowed out of the festival scene knowing that I’d seen and been in on the best.”
The list of engineers and technicians who cite Watkins as a major influence include Roger Lindsay. He says: “Charlie was a bit like a godfather. He would come out to gigs and no one would know. He doubled the PA for me — from 300W to 700W — and would take no money for it.”
Likewise, Pete Hughes, formerly a full-time member of Canegreen, adds: “A lot of people still talk about WEM columns, and how great they were. The WEM column had elements of the line array system and, of course, we use line array nowadays. Charlie had the right idea.”
Tony Andrews sensed that sound reinforcement had further to travel. Once the festival sounds of Hendrix, The Grateful Dead, Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa’s Mothers started to vapourise with the effects of hallucinogens, it was important that the guitar solo entering one’s head modelled itself with the same definition as it had just been peeled off the Stratocaster.
At least, that’s the way Andrews remembers it, and he went on to design the early Glastonbury Festival system (and a custom ‘brown’ rig for Rikki Farr) for one. But by then, Dave Martin was already firmly established.
A true pioneer who always saw himself as more of an inventor than an engineer, Charlie Watkins, even though he admits to “getting on a bit”, remains passionately involved in music, devoting much of his time to his beloved accordion playing, and working alongside his wife June in his ongoing business interests from their south-east London HQ.
With thanks to Charlie Watkins and his impressive archive at www.wemwatkins.co.uk; Mo Foster, Kurt Adkins, Roy Bowen & Michael McNamara.
NEXT MONTH: THE BUCCANEERS Pt.3
featuring Dave Martin