Today I want to celebrate, if I can, the extraordinary secret life of my fellow librarian and baby rhymetime lead guitarist, Reggie ‘Dewie’ Watkins, pictured here in his objet emporium in Pimlico in the 1970s.
Watkins is a mild, unassuming type, often seen sucking on a peppermint or refilling cups at Grey Gables coffee mornings, thrusting herbal tea bags into the top pockets of the homeless, ‘have a drink on me,’ he says. Sitting dutifully with head in hands, while some old bore bangs on about the correct way to stew prunes in a Moroccan tagine, he zones out to the white noise between his ears.
In 1975 Watkins almost made it big with The Handjobs and their rifftastic single Manual Worker. Banned on every terrestial radio station for the explicit lyrics about minimum wage slavery and masturbation, the few copies pressed by the independent label Fetid Chinos rapidly became collectors items.
And yet here’s Watkins in the coffee morning advising on the best way to bake a potato or collecting funds for Blitzen the retired reindeer hoofing it up in the Totness d0nkey sanctuary. What turned the brilliant young guitarist into the mild mannered cataloguer of stock? Why does some one who loves noise (and often reports buskers to the local police) end up craving such deep-seated silence? And how the motherflippin’ heck did he get that guitar sound?
Watkins’ love of warm valves goes back to his childhood in East Sheen where his mother placed the healthy 9lb baby on top of an old Radiogram. The warmth of the valves penetrated his Moses basket, bathing him in cathode rays while the old Alba set played Benny Goodman and Burt Weedon records. ‘Those rays penetrated my bone tissue,’ Watkins says, ‘ it gave me an irridescent glow– a post nuclear Ready-Brek kid– with a love of popping valves and warmth… think of a cat asleep on top of a fishtank, the UV lights under the hood saturate the soft belly… that’s me in a nutshell.’
Watkins assembled amplifiers from army surplus radar and old sputnik parts, speakers wrapped in coduroy gave him that soft, lived-in sound. The mirror guitar pictured above has a built in tremulux reverb pedal incorporating the blades of a Kenwood mixer allegedly once owned by Delia Smith: the whirring sound and glissando slides all mixed up with a refreshing whiff of currants and cake mix.
Watkins has spent his life searching for that elusive sound, the one he hears in his head but often eludes him in the studio. He toured Northern France looking to find the most effective Cathedral reverb, ‘that’s what the Normans were all about— trying to get the reverb going in their places of worship, drenching the choir and the congregation’s responses in space and the soaring arch…’ Watkins plans to put a Norman reverb pedal on the market very soon but until then he will be cataloguing stock in Grey Gables.