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Vernon Thompson, guitarist with Pink Floyd predecessors Sigma Six Print E-mail
Written by Matt   
Thursday, 02 April 2009

Sigma Six. Picture: Clive MetcalfIn Nick Mason's fascinating "Inside Out - A Personal History Of Pink Floyd", there's a picture [click thumbnail, left] of Pink Floyd predecessors Sigma Six. Shown in the Student Common Room at the Regent Street Poly in London, it has the band in the midst of rehearsal.

The picture shows (from left to right) Clive Metcalfe, Sheila Noble, Keith Noble, Roger Waters, Nick Mason, and a guitarist whose name eluded Nick. We recently were delighted to facilitate a reunion between the guitarist - Vernon Thompson - and Nick, sparking many memories of those early days. Vernon was studying engineering while Nick was studying architecture, and until he read Nick's book, didn't realise that the fledgling band he was part of back then, turned into Pink Floyd!

We took the opportunity to test Vernon's memories of those early days, which resulted in some interesting insights...

Brain Damage interviews Vernon Thompson, guitarist with Sigma Six, March 2009

- Some 45 years later, what are your thoughts on those early days as part of Sigma Six?

I enjoyed my time at the Poly and my very short time with Sigma Six. You have to remember that we were a fairly diverse group of individuals. I think Clive Metcalfe was a graphic artist, Roger and Nick were studying Architecture, and I was trying to follow in my father's footsteps in Electrical Engineering.

I never knew what Keith and Sheila Noble were studying. Keith always struck me as a budding actor. I do remember they both had pretty good voices.

The result was that we usually only saw each other after classes. We got together to practice in the basement of the Poly. This was Students Union territory and it even had a bar that sold McEwan's Export – my favorite at the time.

Before going to the Poly I had played in a band called "The Pacemakers" for a couple of years – No, not Gerry and the Pacemakers of "Ferry cross the Mersey" fame – but Richard and the Pacemakers. Richard Palmer was a TV actor and a great mimic. He took off everyone from Cliff Richard to Tommy Steel to Elvis.

We started playing at local gigs in West London and then progressed to the 2-I's Coffee Bar and a club or two in Soho. Every Thursday evening was rehearsal night - in the back room of the Beehive Pub on the Great West Road (The Temperance Seven were always just leaving as we arrived). We had a pre-planned Song list and were pretty disciplined for wannabe musicians.

Our last gig was either an unmitigated disaster or a financial success whichever way you want to view it. It was a Sunday afternoon at a large Dance hall which featured Lou Prager's orchestra. The Pacemakers were to play in the intermission. We set up our tuned instruments and placed them at the back of the revolving stage.

Unfortunately there were footlights surrounding the edge of it. As the intermission arrived and the MC announced us, there was a great drum roll from Lou Prager's drummer and the stage revolved to the front revealing the Pacemakers in all their glory. We hit the first chord of "Maybe Baby". Clang! Ouch! All of our strings had stretched in the heat.

Richard tried to hit a note somewhere in the middle cacophony and then crackle and fizz - their PA system blew up. There was smoke emanating from speakers around the dance hall. The MC rushed onstage: "We apologize for the technical problem - The Pacemakers will be back shortly". They never did fix it that day - and we got paid four pounds each for about four minutes of playing. That is 60 pounds an hour! Pretty good pay in those days.

Before we broke up – three of us were off to university (I was off to the Poly), and Richard opened a betting shop - we made an L.P. for which we forked out most of the money we had made. It contained a couple of original instrumentals on it but mostly covers. I wish I could find one of those ten copies that we sold. There was a good rendering of "Tobacco Road" on it.

- You mentioned that Clive Metcalf persuaded you to "join in". How established were Sigma Six at that point?

I hope Nick and Roger et al won't be offended – but "Unestablished" would be the polite way of describing it. Someone would call out a cover tune and we would start trying to play it. I usually attempted to follow Clive (who was a far better guitarist than I was) and Nick laid down the beat. I cannot remember if Roger even played bass at most of those sessions. Yes – I think I met Clive in the Poly cafeteria and we started chatting. He just asked me to join in the fray the following day!

- What sort of shows did you play? Do you recall any of the songs that were performed?

The only shows I can remember were a couple of Student Union bashes. We played covers – no original stuff then - some early Beatles tunes and for some reason I definitely recall playing "Money (That's What I Want)" over and over again.

- What do you remember most strongly about your band mates?

I remember Nick always had that look of fierce concentration on his face and he provided quiet discipline. Clive was the carefree minstrel, Roger was the handsome cool dude, and Keith was the action guy. Sheila was the harmonizer.

- Could you foresee any of them progressing on to bigger and better things?

No – and quite honestly I don't think that was in the forefront of any of our minds at that time (at least mine, and that is probably why I never made any real money from music!). Our focus was on creating music together. There were a lot of good upcoming bands around at the time, and it was only when Roger, Syd, Rick and later David started composing their original stuff that the band took off.

- You share a passion for cars with Nick. Were you interested in them back in the Sigma Six days? Nick's father Bill told me some years back that he made sure that the very young Nick was almost forced, or (as Bill called it) "brainwashed" into an interest in cars, taking him in his early years to race meetings and such like. Did you ever discuss motoring matters with Nick?

I wish I had. At the time I had a 750cc Triumph Herald. Hardly a car to boast about. I used to take the head off the engine and was regrinding the valves almost every month in the hope that it would go faster!

I did not get a car worth mentioning until 1970 when I purchased my Alfa Romeo Spyder and formed a branch Of the Alfa Romeo Owners Club in the Home Counties. I really admire Nick's collection and what he has done in the car world. Driving in the Le Mans 24-hour race takes some guts. He now has an Alfa 8C. When I saw one in the USA last month they had to clean up the floor afterwards. I now drive a Jag in the winter and a BMW Z4 in the summer.

- What direction did your life take as you got older? Did you leave the world of music in favour of other interests or professions?

After I left the Poly I became a Computer Engineer. Then I joined the Survey Research Center at the London School of Economics where I was responsible for the programming and statistical computing of such surveys as the "Television and Violence" project which was commissioned by CBS in the USA, and which was aimed at establishing whether TV violence caused aggressive behavior in adolescents.

At the age of 28 I became Managing Director of a publicly owned computer company, and then worked for Diageo for the next 20 years. In 1987 I was asked to manage IT for North America and Canada. I then moved to the USA and married a marvelous girl who had studied music and drama at Barnard College (New York). She got me interested in opera. Unfortunately she died in 1998 of cancer.

Some years later I became engaged to Karen who loved singing. I introduced her to a good buddy of mine who had played in a few bands in the 60's, (including one band whose lead singer was Bobby Valli the brother of Frankie of the Jersey Boys). Soon they were performing 200 gigs a year as a duo. She "retired" last year, but my friend Don is still playing.

So music has always taken a back seat since Sigma Six – but if you could have heard me playing - you too would have realized that it was best for me to get a REAL job!

Our thanks to Vernon for his time, and to Nick Mason for permitting us to use the picture of Sigma Six in rehearsal, showing Vernon on the far right of the shot. Photo: Clive Metcalfe

 
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