Brian Chick can be heard before being seen. Whether it’s rock, folk or swing, the music that Brian plays from speakers attached to his electric bicycle have made him a familiar figure around Bristol in recent years as he completes his regular loop of the city from his home in Cotham.
It all started with the 65-year-old putting a pirate flag on his new bike, and it escalated from there. He now has two bikes, with the larger one covered in so many trinkets that its frame is barely visible.
His foldable winter version, which he recently bought from Atmosphere Electric Bikes at the bottom of Jacob’s Wells Road, is smaller and currently has a couple of flags, baskets front and back each containing two Bristol-made Minirig speakers, a subwoofer, and around a dozen cuddly toys including two PG Tips monkeys in tomato soup cans.
Two small panniers hold his snacks (an apple and a cereal bar today) and Brian also wears a small shoulder bag, in which he always carries “a couple of bob” to give to homeless people he passes on his route; today he has accessorised his handlebars with a few purple roses given to him by a man sat on Pero’s Bridge.
Brian plays songs from CDs he buys in charity shops which he then transfers to a second-hand pink iPod via a laptop that was a present from his brother-in-law in Weston-super-Mare.
“Some people think I just plug it in and I go,” he says. “But it’s hard work. People don’t realise the work I put into this. I like to be unique. I can look at that bike now and know there’s not one like that in the world.”
Brian says that he has always wished that he was proficient at a musical instrument. He enjoys playing the banjo and guitar and remembers his dad, a firefighter and later a fire engine driver, playing the piano by ear, being able to play songs they used to listen to on the radio while he was growing up in Totterdown and Brislington.
Playing music from his bikes is one way that Brian can live out his musical dreams, with heads turning wherever he cycles, smiles on the faces of people as he cycles by, music blaring from the powerful speakers on his extravagantly decorated bike.
“I’m into swing music at the moment. It don’t half get your feet tapping. I go through phases. I went through a phase of only playing Iron Maiden a few months ago. But I like all sorts: Dylan, rock, folk, swing, blues.
“I like to see people enjoying the music that I play, to get them dancing. I don’t stop very often because it’s quite hard and I can’t hear people very well.
“A few people use a few choice words, tell me to turn it down. But 99 per cent of people enjoy it.”
Brian’s regular route takes him around two and a half hours to complete, including a stop for a cup of tea from his flask. He starts by cycling down Nine Tree Hill from Kingsdown to Stokes Croft, then towards Broadmead and Cabot Circus before heading through Castle Park, along Corn Street, around College Green, along the harbour towards the Pump House, through Greville Smyth Park, to Asda in Bedminster, passing by the old General Hospital, before heading along the other side of the docks and back home.
Alcoholism led to Brian living on the streets when he was younger, and he often stayed in the former night shelter on the site of what is now the Tesco Express on Marlborough Street opposite the magistrates’ court. But he had his last drink 25 years ago.
“For a long time, I could not even turn a key in a lock, let alone get a job,” Brian recalls. “When I was drinking, I never got a driving license. If I didn’t kill myself, I would have killed someone else.” After stopping drinking, he trained as a painter and decorator, and later became a kitchen porter at St Mary-on-the-Quay church on Colston Avenue.
Cycling and music are now Brian’s two abiding passions, with his rides around town unlikely to stop any time soon. “It’s weird, I can’t understand why no-one else is doing this,” he says. “I’ve not reinvented the wheel. I’m just playing music.”