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Celebration of the Individual – A Review

Back in the 1980s, the Celebration of the Individual band nights at Marlborough were riotous affairs. We overdosed on dry ice, thick black eyeliner and Elnett hairspray, and anyone lucky enough to hang out with a band in the rabbit warren of tunnels beneath the Mem Hall or, better still, get up on stage to play to a braying audience of 16 year olds could for a moment shake off the confines of school life and get a brief taste of what it might feel like to be a rock star.

At the time, I don’t think any of us imagined that one of us would, in fact, get to experience this life for real. Toby Grafftey-Smith (B3 1984-89) – B3 resident, Red Hand Gang member – was an insanely talented pianist who’d won a music scholarship to Marlborough. Like many others, he performed in classical concerts, played in a band at a Celebration and seemed to be ready to follow a more established path in life, landing a place to read Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Manchester University.

Then Toby’s life diverged. He embraced the rave scene, formed Jamiroquai with Jay Kay, and for ten years the pair wrote hit after hit, embarking on four world tours. We got used to seeing Toby, now with an out of control mane of curly hair, playing the keyboard in the background on Top of the Pops with his shades on or to hearing his songs on the radio and dancing to them in muddy fields somewhere in the Home Counties.

But it wasn’t until I sat in the Memorial Hall at the end of February this year that I truly understood what a far-reaching influence Toby had had on the country’s music scene. Almost three years after his tragically untimely death in April 2017, current students, beaks, and assorted alumni gathered together for a one-off Celebration of the Individual in memory of his unique life.

In between performances from current and past students, we watched a film about Toby’s life and achievements. It began and ended with him playing Grieg Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op 16, up on stage in the same Mem Hall, at a concert in 1989. It was mesmerising to watch, over 30 years on. I wondered how many of those who witnessed that breath-taking performance were aware how fortunate they’d been to listen to it.

Friends from the music world discussed what an influence Toby had been – especially in the years after he left Jamiroquai and worked with numerous bands at his studios in his estate in Northamptonshire. The Hoosiers’ Irwin Sparkes told how he, “took us from nowhere and we ended up with a double platinum debut album.”

We even discovered that “without Toby there might not have been a Coldplay”, as the group’s Guy Berryman revealed how he first bonded with Chris Martin by talking about Toby’s astonishing talent on the keyboard.

The film revealed a man with an enormous zest for life, a musician with a prodigious talent both for making music and nurturing his fellow musicians, and a devoted dad of three and husband to Gaby (Gabrielle Grafftey-Smith nee Crewe-Read (CO 1991-92)).

What would Toby himself have made of the event held in his honour? He might have been surprised by the newly sanitised Mem Hall – complete with plush red cushions and state of the art lighting – but I think he would have been impressed by the incredible range of talent showcased by current students, who were joined by his own son, Dylan, on the drums for the final song.

Some pupils, including singer/songwriter Tom Phelps (B1 Hu) and Florence Tuckey (EL U6) already seem set on a path to fame, while former students Tom Stafford (C1 2008-13) and Tristan Landymore (SU 2006-11), performing as 330ml, have already found success writing tracks for other singers. The Mostar Diving Club might have been a more seasoned act, featuring Damian Katkhuda (B1 1983-87), but held the audience spellbound nonetheless.

For years after our Celebration, I carried around a tape of our year’s all-girl band, Minnie the Minx, performing The Specials’ A Message To You Rudy. It was raw, but full of enthusiasm, and I couldn’t help feeling that those girls – Tiffany White (B3 1987-89) and Katherine Tulloh (CO 1987-89) included – were, by bravely stepping into what had predominantly been a male domain, instrumental in paving the way for the incredibly accomplished women like SpaceAcre (Phoebe Little –MM 2006-11), who we saw up on stage this time round.

Photographs from that night in the 80s, when Toby also performed with his band, show spiky haired students moshing close to the stage. The audience this year was perhaps a little more restrained, but I think Toby would have been proud of the hardcore group of Fieldhouse friends, and more, who smuggled in some alcohol and cheered every act as loudly as possible.

Most of us were reeling from a few impossibly nostalgic pints in the unchanged Lamb pub beforehand, and determined to make the most of the event. Before the final song by Biba Tarn (MM L6), one of our number, B3’s John MacDonald-Brown (B3 1984-89), leapt to his feet and got the entire audience to do the same.

It was a fitting way to close. Some were in tears, and others clapping enthusiastically. “it was a celebration of a fine individual, and a celebration of fine individuals,” said one friend the following day. “We did him proud,” said another, of having ended up in Marlborough’s only nightclub at the end of the evening.

I didn’t make it to the club, but before I went home I spoke to a friend from my Latin class who I hadn’t seen since we left in 1989. In the film, Toby’s wife had said, “He was always creating”.

“That’s what I will take away from the evening,” I said. “That even at 48 or 49, we should still be creating.” “That’s what I thought, too,” my friend said.

The evening may have encouraged the current crop of pupils and those already on the cusp of stardom to follow their dreams, but it gave us middle-aged folk something precious to hold on to as well. Toby might not be here any more, but his inspirational legacy lives on.

Lebby Eyres
C2 1987-89