Bands of The Parachute Regiment by Colin Cunliffe

The Regiment was officially formed in 1940, however the formation of the Regiments band was not authorised until November of 1947. The first band was formed in Maida Barracks in that year with the 1st Bn Band being formed in December of 1948, whilst the Bn was in Lubeke, Germany.

The original bands were formed from other Regt’s second or third Bn. bands that were being disbanded. Many musicians, having served through the war years were happy to leave and return to civilian life, other chose to stay and be rebadged to the Para Regt.

From the earliest days the Regt Bands had a very good reputation, with many very good players and arrangers/writers of music being employed within each band.

To people who don’t understand the hierarchy of military music, the Para Bands were “Line Bands” as in Infantry of the line, above them would be Minor Staff Bands who belonged to Corps (e.g. The Signals, REME) and then (in their opinion) the cream of military music The “STAFF” bands, The Guards.

A Line Band would have approx 30 “BANDSMEN” who had to play 1 instrument, although we usually all played a 2nd or even a 3rd. The Minor Staff band would have approx 35 “MUSICIANS” doing the same thing. Guards bands from memory had 55 musicians.

A Bandsman could be enlisted with very little musical training BUT showing an aptitude for music and an ability to progress. The Musician had some qualification, a higher standard of playing and theory and would usually play a second none band instrument (e.g. violin, keyboards). The Musicians that tended to be selected for the Guards, numbering about 55,  would be of a higher level again – Professional Standard and had to play a second instrument such as violin and cello as the guards had string ensembles as well as the traditional wind band.

As an insight to the lack of knowledge of the then recruiting staff, I had to take three entrance exams, they gave me the infantry one then decided as a musician (trade) I should take the craftsmans exam and then as all musical officers entered as a private I should take the Officers exam just to make sure. Luckily one of the Sgts knew a musician in his regiment (Guards) and rang him to ask if they allowed musicians to enter the service, the musician took over and arranged my audition – phew!!!

I joined because a friend of the family ran an “artist” B&B. My father whilst visiting him met Bert Weedon, who persuaded my father to allow me to join as I would receive “the best musical training available”.

Several famous performers had their musical training in the line bands, the most famous being Norman Wisdom. He joined as a “BANDBOY” and served in Egypt. John Barry played Cornet/trumpet in the Green Howards band if I remember correctly. Many, many more either through National Service or a wish to be a military musician served their musical apprenticeship in the line bands.

The roll of honour for ex military musicians was almost without end and the BBC, for example, was an old boys club of ex military musicians. It was well known that at any point in a civilian musical career someone somewhere was an ex musician, they ran the musical world. Many of those people would have served in line bands including the Para bands. Sadly that influence has faded as the numbers of ex military musicians declines and the pop world is influenced by other drivers.

So being at the bottom of the pile and being a Para band (in “their” opinion we were too much soldier and not enough music) we were always looked down on, it upset lots of those looking down when every Para band received a very high mark and compliments during our Kneller Hall inspections.

Army music was controlled from Kneller Hall, a mansion next door to the famous Twickenham Rugby stadium. The Lt Col in charge of all Army music was here and from there kept a very close eye on all things musical. Every (if I remember correctly) 5 years the Lt Col and hangers-on came to inspect a band. We had to perform as a marching band, a concert band, some male voice choir, as well as some form of pop music ensemble.

For 1 Para during the mid and late 70’s they would have been entertained in their messes, of all ranks, by Quode, the pop group of the Band.

I know all members of the 3 bands always felt that they “belonged” to their Bn. There was a loyalty and camaraderie between bandsmen and squaddies, even if the squaddies did enjoy winding up the bandsmen.

If you spoke to lads who had served a few years they realised what a hard job the bands did trying to fit their military duties in with musical requirements. At that time our main war time role would have been as stretcher bearers, however in reality nearly all of us were more qualified than that. It was a sore point in 1 Para band because we were paid as an A trade (musician) but we never received additional payment for our B2 and B1 medical qualifications.

We spent our summers on the south coast resorts and London Parks bandstands entertaining the holiday makers, we would cover passing out parades, Officers and Sergeants mess dinners, C.A.P.E. tours, recruiting drives and all sorts of County shows and Tattoo’s.

I had 3 years in Aldershot when I don’t think I spent more than 3 weeks in the barracks and 2 out of four weekends in a mess playing for the dinners. We also covered some guard duties as well as helping in many admin positions.

The Paras had a well deserved reputation as an aggressive fighting unit, unfortunately you cannot walk down a high street spraying bullets and throwing grenades. You can have your band and drums lead the colours, that really grabs people’s attention, the Band was a brilliant PR machine.

Unfortunately, in my and many others opinions, as the Bands were being moved away from the day to day involvement of the Bn. and towards being an “Attached Arms” relationship the sense of loyalty and belonging started to fade from the next generation of Para musicians. This became even more obvious as 3 were merged into 2 and eventuality 1.

By Colin Cunliffe

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