An Article from
April 2009

Country Music People photo

“We were prescribing tincture of cannabis to everybody who wanted it.”

Country Music People photo

"George has a wonderful voice… and the stage presence of a kipper.”

Country Music People photo


stormy horizons


hard shoulder to cry on


Whistling in the Dark

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Hank Wangford

Cannabis, Communism & Country Music

In the Suffolk town of Wangford, just a little inland from Southwold, there stands a church and, opposite it, a pub called the White Horse.  It was there, on a fateful day in the Spring of 1976, that a long haired, moustachioed, post-hippy doctor called Sam Hutt found himself literally crying into his beer.

In words that could form the basis of a good country song, the doctor recalls, “My girlfriend had left me and gone off and married my flatmate.  I felt like the world had slapped me in the face.

“And that’s when it came to me: Hank Wangford.  What a great name for an emotional wanker wallowing in self pity.  At that point a load lifted off me.  Because Hank could go around moaning and feeling sorry for himself…and Sam could sort his life out.”

Wind forward three decades, and Hank has a typically anarchic gleam in his eye as he says, “I like nothing better than going into a village hall in a rich Tory village singing my song about the mining strike,  Then telling them that when I was a kid, on the kitchen wall, we used to have a picture of Uncle Joe… Stalin. What a nice man, what a lovely smile he had…

“I can see the people shivering.  And I let them off the hook and say, Doh! Of course we all now know that he was a bastard.  But I was fooled…

“Then I say, ‘And I love country music and you probably don’t.  You probably think it’s all about grannies being knocked over by a truck while they’re trying to save their dog.  And there will be songs like that.  But things aren’t always how they seem’.”

Perceptions… images… deceptions.  Hank has spent his career deconstructing them…  and weaving others, for his own ends.

There wasn’t any country music in the North London house where Hank grew up, although folk singer Ewan MacColl was a visitor, railing against the in-authenticity of skiffle, with the vigour of a Stalinist purge.

“As soon as I’d pick up my guitar, he’d tell me off.  He’d say, “You’re from London, so you must sing songs true to your roots.’  In his book, a Londoner couldn’t even sing about a Scottish mining disaster.  So when he discovered all these young dudes singing American railroad songs like Rock Island Line, he was furious: ‘You can’t do that.  It’s not part of your heritage.  ‘I’d think, what the f*** are you talking about?”

The fake benevolent smile of ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin, meanwhile presided over a house full if marital discontent of which country songs are made.

“Dad was on the central committee of the Communist party.  My Mum taught English to admirals and generals in the Soviet Embassy.

“Later in life I challenged her about it: ‘Come on, Mum, the Cold War’s over.  You were a spy, weren’t you?’ But she never admitted it.”

Spy or not, his mum had an affair with “a handsome Russian captain,” – Hank remembers him as another specious ‘uncle’ who used to visit.  She also had a baby with one of her husband’s colleagues on the Daily Worker, where he was chief sub-editor.  But the pair were so enthralled by the Communist cause that, Hank reports, “The Party  prevented them divorcing, because it would break up the Party.”

In fact, his parents did eventually split.  But only after “five appalling years of really terrible family rows and unhappiness.” By that time, Hank was reday to leave home, with his guitar in his hand.

Having secured a place at Cambridge, the teenager spent his gap year down and out in France and Italy.

“I had some friends who would let me sleep on their sofa and if I rotated the, I didn’t have too many nights sleeping on the streets.  But I was sleeping on the streets as well.

“I was a colourer for a pavement artist.  I’d colour in with the chalks.  On a good day we’d get steak and some bread out of it.  Otherwise, my daily ration was one coffee, a couple of pieces of processed cheese and half a baguette.”

Naturally, he also busked.

“Paul Anka’s Diana was a huge hit in Italy.  As soon as I played it, I’d have to play it again and again.”

At the time, Hank hated country music, “Like everybody else did.”  He had no idea that his first big heroes, The Everly Brothers, were country boys at heart.

Again, it was a matter of perceptions.

“It’s easy to be fooled by the quiffs and the shiny black guitars.  They were presented as ‘now’ music: these boys are rock ‘n’ roll.

It was Hank’s “dominating” mother who steered him towards becoming a doctor.  “I’m glad I became a doctor, now.  But at the time I was steered by her desire to bask in the reflected glory: ‘My son, the doctor.’”

While he was reading  medicine at Cambridge, Hank indulged his showbiz aspirations through the university’s Footlights Society, which would spawn many of Britain’s entertainment stars who emerged in the 60s.

“That’s where I learned to love getting up and making people laugh.”

It was as part of the “Oxbridge satire set,” that Hank first dipped his toe into the professional music world.  In 1964, the actress Sarah Miles recorded his Burt Bacharach-style bossa nova hit Where Am I – although without success.  “The words were atrocious,” Hank recalls, “And she couldn’t sing for toffee.  She made Ernest Tubb sound as if he hit every note on the button.”

By 1968, Hank had become a singer himself, recording the psychedelic single Jabberwocky as Boeing Duveen & The Beautiful Soup.

“And you think Hank Wangford’s a silly name! There was a programme on Channel 5 recently and they had a clip of me, 40 years ago.  Very long hair, huge moustache, frilly cuffs coming out of the jacket, very fruity middle class accent.  And I thought, what a twat! What a pretentious turkey!”

Copies of Jabberwoky today apparently change hands in Ebay for upwards of ₤200, and ₤300 for the picture sleeve - although, at that price, Hank says he won’t be buying one himself.

By the time of Boeing Duveen, Hank was established as Dr Rock.  “I was Ian Dury’s doctor, Pink Floyd’s doctor.  If any of them had sore throats, they’d call me in.  It was easy for them to see someone like me, because I had long hair like them and was unshockable.”

Naturally, being the swinging 60s, the “hippy practise” where Hank worked wasn’t only popular for its cough mixture.

“We were prescribing tincture of cannabis to everybody who wanted it.”

Although it was legal, before 1973, for doctors to prescribe cannabis for “everything from depression to period pains,” the hippy doctor admits, “I had a social and political agenda.”

“If someone smokes a joint now, nobody turns a hair.  At that time, it was a revolutionary act.  You were part of the ‘Alternative Society,’ instead of the ‘Straight’ Society. The fear of ‘the man’ knocking on the door and busting you was real, and if it happened, it was not pleasant.

“But if you came to see me and you were having headaches and, in taking your history, you were a dope smoker and you wanted me to prescribe you tincture of cannabis, I could give it to you legally and you didn’t have to go and see the dealer. You were suddenly legal and I had taken a whole area of woory and anxiety off you back.

“The police did not like us at all,” Hank admits.  But echoing the sentiments of that other country longhair, Willie Nelson, he maintains, “Even now, I think that the safety margins with marijuana are much broader that the safety margins with alcohol. Given that part of the human condition is wanting to get out of things in one way or another, marijuana seems like one of the relatively safe ways to do so.”

He adds though: “I never prescribed any harder drugs.  If they wanted those, I sent them to Harley Street where they could get whatever they wanted… from the ‘straight’ doctors, in the pinstripe suits.”

Perceptions and images, once more.  Things are never as they appear.
It was in his capacity as a doctor to the rockers that Hank met the man who changed his life, Cosmic Cowboy Gram Parsons, who was at that point hanging out in London with the Rolling Stones.

“What kind of man was gram? Self-serving.  Charismatic. Very Pretty.  Very self-conscious of his prettiness.  Very manipulative of everybody around him.  He was complicated and needed a lot of loving.

“Several times I would be called in when he was on the brink of OD-ing.  He’d be turning blue and nodding and sitting on the toilet with a needle hanging out of his arm.  And my feeling was he would go to the brink to be shown how much people loved him to pull him back.”

Sadly, Gram went to the brink once too often, and never lived to make an album he was scheduled to produce on Hank – and which, surely would have been something special.

But Gram turned Hank on to country music, as he did so many other rock ‘n’ rollers.

“Gram was the great evangelist.  He got the trick of turning people like the Rlling Stones on to country.  He managed to fool us all with the Burritos that they were rock ‘n’ roll, when it was country music they were playing.”

The pivotal moment was when Gram brought his wife to Hank for treatment.

“So I see here, and outside the curtain, Gram picks up my guitar and sings, ‘An empty bottle. A broken heart, and you’re still on my mind,’ – a song I still play to this day.  That was when the penny dropped.  Which it didn’t when I heard him play The Byrds. But just singing it there with his cracked voice… that was soul.”

Most lastingly, Gram turned Hank on to George Jones. 

“It took me ten years to get past George Jones,” Hank says fondly. “Johnny Cash? Didn’t quite do it. Ernest Tubb? No, sorry.  Lefty Frizzell? Not really.  For ten years I didn’t really listen to anything else.”

During the 80s, Hank made a couple of outstanding TV documentaries about country music, A-to-Z of C&W and Big, Big Country.  His one regret is that, of all the stars he met, Jones was not one of them – although he did get to see his hero in concert. “It was him and Conway Twitty.  I naturally thought Conway would be supporting George because George is the greatest singer.  But George was supporting Conway, because Conway was the greatest showman.  George has a wonderful voice… and the stage presence of a kipper.”

A month after he was conceived in the Suffolk town from which he took his name, Hank Wangford made his first public appearance just a few miles down the road at the May horse fair in Bungay.

“At that time in the 70s, there was this sort of post-hippy movement out to the country.  A lot of people had moved from London to Suffolk and Norfolk.  There was quite a community.

“I told friends about Hank and they said, ‘We’re going to have a little marquee, do you want to do a gig?’ So, in May of 76, saying to myself how the hell can I go on stage with a name as monumentally stupid as Hank Wangford, I pushed together a little band. Lead guitarist, drummer myself on acoustic guitar.  There was no bass player, but there was a guy in the audience who joined us on bass.  And there were tow two women in a can-can group at the fair  who became my backing singers, the Hank-Kerchiefs.”

In the early days, Hank says, “I did quite a few songs with a masturbatory theme: I Ain’t Feeling Myself Tonight, and A Pain in the Wrist, It’s too long a Time Since I’ve been Kissed… at which point Hank would collapse on the stage and the Hank-Kerchiefs would raise him back up, in the manner of James Brown.

“At that point, Hank was a clown – but that was necessary to get people in.  People thought, ‘He’s taking the piss out of country, and you need to take the piss out of it, because it’s the music of redneck, fascist-minded, racist pigs and I can’t possibly identify with them because I’m a nice middle class person from London.’”

Behind the clowning, hank worked with top drawer musicians such as guitarist Martin Belmont, fiddle player Bobby Valentino and pedal steel maestro B. J. Cole. “I wouldn’t accept anything less that the best,” he maintains.

He played with a raw energy which won over the punk audiences, and he made albums that would impress the most discerning of ‘straight’ country fans.  Especially worth hearing are Stormy Horizons, with it’s lyrics about striking miners and the GLC; the electrifying live set A Hard Shoulder to Cry On; and his latest, more contemplative disc, Whistling In The Dark.

The later is particularly notable for concluding a long and sometimes difficult process during which Hank gradually stopped hiding behind a caricature of a country singer and, as a true artist eventually must, showed his audience who is really is.

The narrator of The Ballad Of Bill Pickett is unapologetically a university educated doctor from London, using exactly the same accent as he does in real life… and the song is no less ‘country’ because of it.

Although his style of presentation has changed, however, Hank’s mission remains the same: getting the unconverted in with a good dose of humour, then showing them a side of country music they may never have known existed – the pain, the tears, the stories and the reality at the heart of the genre.

“I see it as an evangelising role , which is what I think drove gram.  I don’t want them coming away saying ‘Hey, that country music is good laugh.’ I want them to say, ‘Hey, there’s something  good here and I want to check it out.’

“What I will say to people is, ‘ The two words I want you to take away tonight are not Hank and Wangford, they’re George and Jones.’”