The First Rehearsal

This is the first of an occasional series in which I'll be laying out a step by step guide to playing in a pop group - the laughter, the tears, the bad times (lots of 'em), the good times (seldom) that an aspiring musician may encounter on the rocky road to megastardom - or more realistically, that much sought after, third on the bill support to 'Septic Death' on a Tuesday night at the Flapper & Firkin


"That's Roy Wood's old amp, mate"
My 'career' in the local band scene began in 1986, when one of my colleagues, a normally sensible chap called Darrall, asked me to try out for his newly formed, R.E.M. style janglepop combo. I have to point out that at this time, my Bass playing prowess stretched as far as two Thin Lizzy riffs and the intro to 'Satisfaction', but he was desperate - really desperate. It did involve a trip to the pub however so I reluctantly agreed. It was at the pub that I first met Gary, the drummer. He took one look at my tragic Motley Crue wannabee outfit and decided to get blind drunk. I later found this was not an unusual occurrence.

We finally reached the rehearsal room, (Gary had taken the precaution of walking twenty metres behind us so as not to be mistaken for an acquaintance of mine). Down about a million steps, we arrived at a shabbily padded door. As we pushed it open, the sound of six of the crappiest bands in the West Midlands assailed our ears. Gingerly, Darrall asked which of the rooms was ours and without lifting his head from a ten-year-old copy of 'Razzle', the Black Sabbath roadie look-alike pointed to the corridor. As our eyes got accustomed to the gloom, we could vaguely make out a prehistoric drumkit and a few amps. This was not the kind of place Celine Dion would rehearse in.

"Don't forget to use the ashtrays..."
About half of our two-hour session involved setting up the gear.  Gary clattered around the kit like an epileptic shed builder, whilst Darrall struggled with what was once a Marshall amp but was now little more than an electric rabbit hutch. The sound that dribbled out of its ruined speaker was like six angry wasps trapped in a galvanised bucket. My amp was about sixty years old with perished Bakelite knobs and woodworm. After much farting and spluttering, a sound resembling a forty-foot bungee rope being twanged by an arthritic pixie emerged. We pronounced ourselves ready to rock.
 
Darrall showed me his first tune--a pretty neat little four-chord rocker (bearing in mind this was one more than I was used to), and off we lurched. Rock & Roll history was not made. The vocal P.A. (possibly last used by the bingo caller to Henry VIII) made Darrall sound like a mildly peeved Dalek and this along with the slightly less than virtuoso playing made for what my father so rightly describes as "a bloody row". About halfway through our last "song", we were interrupted by the band vacating the room next to ours. Their looks of barely concealed mirth will haunt me forever - in fact, their drummer laughed so hard at our dismal strummage that he dropped his cymbals, which hit the threadbare carpeted floor with a resounding CRASH! On reflection however, that was probably the most musical sound to come out of that room all day

The First Gig

"Thanks for the loan of the amp, mate"

You've joined a band. You've rehearsed a few times. You know all the chords to 'September Gurls' but not necessarily the order in which they're played. Your girlfriend thinks you're brilliant (but she'll learn). You think you're ready to gig. This is a bad idea. No, it's A VERY BAD IDEA. The scenario normally runs like this - one member of the band has a mate who is in another band. They're playing in some gruesome nightmare of a pub next week and they're stuck for a support band. (Or more to the point they're stuck for a drumkit), and they thought it would be a nice gesture if they gave you the opening slot. This is, of course, complete and utter nonsense because they know that, as crappy as they are, following you would be a bit like The Who following Daphne and Celeste. Anyway, you accept and the night of the gig rolls around. The following things will occur:

All your mates will turn up. Not to cheer you on in your moment of triumph but to skulk around by the bar and snigger at you. At no time during your set will they clap or cheer (unless of course, you fall over or snap a string and then the roars will be deafening). They will not dance.
Someone will take photographs. Not of that exquisite moment where you leaped in the air whilst pulling of the most difficult Jazz chord in the world, but of that slightly less than exquisite moment when you were picking your P.V.C. trousers from out of the crack of your butt.

That really dramatic pause in that aching ballad three quarters of the way through the set will be somewhat spoiled by the drummer's crash cymbal falling off its stand and rolling down the stairs.

You have one four note solo. You will screw it up. Your mates will cheer at this point.

Your electronic tuning device will not work, resulting in you trying to tune by ear whilst the drummer of the headline band re-enacts great tank battles of the twentieth century on your band's drumkit, which of course, he has now broken.

All your carefully rehearsed, pithily witty, Oscar Wilde-esque stage banter will be forgotten and the best you will be able to manage is a mumbled "Cheers" in between every other song.

Whilst you are singing a heart rending song of undying love dedicated to your girlfriend, she will be in the loo with her mates, laughing at your sexual inadequacies.

In many ways, playing your first gig is rather similar to your first sexual encounter - nervous, amateurish fumbling followed by embarrassment and apologies with a lingering feeling of disappointment combined with almost existential feelings of detachment, failure and futility. But at least after a shag you don't have to carry a bass amp down three flights of stairs…

In The Studio

When I first entered the Beer soaked arena of sadness we laughingly call ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’, to record anything that didn’t sound like it was produced either underwater or accompanied by the sound of frying bacon, one had to drag oneself into a recording studio. What an eye opener that was.  If you think it's all technicians in white coats scurrying around with clipboards, George Martin and Phil Spector arguing over string arrangements, recording spaces larger than the Isle Of Man. etc, I'm afraid you are sorely mistaken. For a band like mine with a budget slightly smaller than a decent round of drinks, the reality is all too different. Imagine your living room after the best party you've ever had. Now, imagine it with 25 miles of cheap cable on the floor, a clapped out drumkit in the corner and brown carpet on the walls. Now throw in approximately 10 000 cigarette butts distributed at random on every surface. And for that distinctive budget studio ambience - a smell of urine which is surpassed only by the "St Loosebladders Rest Home for the Old and Incontinent'. Voila! Welcome to the wonderful world of recording! This is where you intend to record a "Sgt Peppers" for the new millenium. Or possibly not.

"Yeah, I've a got a compressor,,,"

Along with these incredibly creative surroundings comes that most rare of beasts -the engineer. He will greet you as you arrive at about 10 o'clock in the morning, with the ninth spliff of the day clamped between his teeth, Your confidence is further dashed by the way he cannot seem to make any of the vast array of outdated equipment work. "A manual is for wimps- I go by feel and experience!" is the cry. This can be translated to 'It’s very big, full of long words, with no pictures of naked women in it. My attention span is two seconds shorter than that of a goldfish and anyway I tore up to use as rolling papers when the late night garage had closed." After about four hours of setting the drums up, drinking awful studio tea, reading back issues of 'Modern Studio’ magazine and trying to stop the engineer playing Drum & Bass tapes at ear shredding volume, you are ready to begin recording your masterwork. You've rehearsed your tune to perfection - well you listened to a rehearsal tape recorded on your kid sisters 'Teletubbies Tape Recorder' in the van, on the way in, so you're ready to make recording history. Sadly, within moments, your dreams of Grammy awards are dashed when a few home truths become glaringly obvious.

 
1. That twin guitar line you spent ages working out is so out of key that even a diehard Sonic Youth fan would leave the room screaming.

2. Your drummer really is as bad as you thought he was.

3. Your vocalist couldn't find the right key with both hands, a flashlight and a pack of military trained, pitch seeking dogs.

4. The only bassline your bassist can play competently is 'Black Night`. To your horror, you find he has managed to incorporate this into every song.

5. Your keyboard player’s slightly-less-than-state-of-the-art-equipment makes every song you record sound like a Kajagoogoo B side.

6. Your harmony vocals are neither harmonious nor, strictly speaking, actually vocals.
 

But you persevere. At the end of the most gruelling and soul destroying day of your life, the engineer will play your masterpiece back at you at about 1000 decibels. Surprisingly, it sounds brilliant! When you take it home and play it, on your slightly more humble Hi-fi, however, it sounds like what it really is - a dismal, uninspired piece of two chord, strummage, woefully played and incompetently recorded. If you sent it to a record company, somebody would be sent to your house to break your guitar. And you've spent nearly a month’s wages to find that out.
 
As long as bands exist, people will want to record their music. In the future, what I suggest is that if you feel the need to do this - DON'T! Take all the money you intend to spend on studio time and spend it on useful stuff like ice-cream. If people want to know what you sound like, then you just describe your band to them. And lie like a rug.

On The Road

Musicians are all masochists. This is the only reason I can think of why they would contemplate, even for a second, the notion of going “On The Road". Apparently, it isn’t enough to play in front of nobody in a pub down the road - oh no - your average local band wants to play in front of nobody a long way from home too

 
For whatever twisted reason, a local blues band have managed to play a gig in some woodworm festooned shack in a minuscule provincial ghetto in the middle of nowhere. This is perceived as BIG NEWS by all the other sad local outfits and they begin to pump the aforesaid three chord bluesmurderers for information. Being stout fellows all, they lie on a massive scale and elevate their tragic half hour of slaughtering Elmore James tunes into an event akin to Hendrix at Monterey. They also inflate the fee they receive. This has a strange effect on all those within earshot... Within minutes, you make a grovelling and undignified phone call to the pub, where you claim your nasty little fourth rate beat combo is outselling Madonna, Oasis and Aqua in your home town. Grudgingly, the landlord books you for the highly sought after fourth on the bill slot, on a Tuesday night, for a tiny fee. You are pathetically grateful. Then, like a slap in the face, reality appears. The only transport the band has is the keyboard players’ 1976 Mini and this has a Guinness label for a tax disc at the moment. This is clearly unsuitable for carrying an entire bands gear; even such a tragically poorly equipped one as yours. The only van you can afford is a clapped out Transit from ‘JustLegal CheapoVans’. Someone’s brother is conned into driving so now you’re ready to rock.

"It gets loads of passing trade..."
The big night is here. After just a few near death experiences you make it to the venue, which bears a striking similarity to a portaloo with a carpark. In time honoured tradition, you play without a soundcheck to three people, one of whom is clearly mad, while the other two are too busy beating each other up to even acknowledge the fact that there is a band in the room. After twenty-five lengthy and humiliating minutes, the plug is mercifully pulled and your first out of town gig is over.

One of the band sheepishly asks the landlord for the mythical fee. He mumbles something derogatory and hands you £25 in damp fivers. Clutching this like the Holy Grail, you run back to your comrades.

Of course, you get lost and the van breaks down. You limp to a motorway service station (nearly always Newport Pagnall) and feast on a plate of lukewarm beans and chips. By a miracle you repair the van and at seven in the morning, with just enough time for a shower and a quick nervous breakdown before work, you arrive home. A swift calculation later and taking into consideration the cost of the van, a pint of Fosters each, your service station "banquet", the road map of Leeds you had to buy to determine where the bloody hell you were, twenty five Twix’s, thirty packets of Monster Munch and the Bass players Taxi fare home (well he was crying a lot, and he had turned a funny shade of blue), you come to the grim realisation that this sad and sorry night has cost the band about £200.

Welcome to Showbiz.

The First Record


There is nothing I can say about this picture
that would make it less ridiculous

Certain things in life are difficult. Explaining the rules of Cricket to a Frenchman, for example, or trying to look suave and impressive whilst eating Spaghetti. But these things pale into insignificance against The Most Difficult Thing in The World — trying to explain to your parents the function of the Bass Guitar.


For years I’d secretly yearned to be a Rockstar Guitarist like most of my generation, but it all seemed so difficult. Those tricky chords, those superfast lead guitar  licks (not to mention the pouting and the high maintenance trousers) all seemed far too much like hard work All the Keyboard players of the era (with the possible exception of Rick Wakeman) looked like Geography teachers and maintaining a sexy hairdo whilst flailing away at a Drumkit seemed impossible. Singing seemed promising - until I realised l had neither the voice nor the torso to really carry off a line like, "I‘m gonna roll ya all night long baybee baybee yeah". This left but one option - the humble Bass Guitar. Perfect! No chords, no solos (until delusions of grandeur set in), four big, fat, friendly strings and most importantly, Lemmy played one.


"Brilliant! I love Napalm Death!"
After many months of hard bargaining and undignified pleading, my parents bought me a second hand Rickenbacker copy Bass for Christmas. I tried to play it. I couldn’t. The Bass was fabulous, it was me who was crappy, I'd pose with it in front of the mirror in the bathroom but it was seldom played, so it came as quite a shock when l found myself in a local indie band. It came as a bigger shock when a record company signed us up. A record deal! We quickly shifted from local obscurity to national obscurity. We made a record! It was quite good! It sold about nine copies! At last l had something to show my parents - a real record as opposed to the home made cassettes I made and circulated, hoping in vain that one would land in Richard Bransons lap - possibly at a Polo game. I dreamed of the day I would play it to them -all those years of putting up with tuneless thumps and aimless plods would fade away and I would be showered in glowing praise. And one day that dream became real and turned into a nightmare...

I could barely speak as I lowered the crackly test pressing of our album onto the record deck of my parents music centre, having first removed the copy of ‘James Lasts 40 Hammond Greats’ which seemed to live there. The needle hit the groove. My parents assumed serious listening positions on the edges of their chairs, and I sat back to await the plaudits. What I wanted was a comment like "Good Lord! The groove riding genius of Bootsy Collins combined with the power and precision of Chris Squire, the rhythmic audacity and master musicianship of Jaco Pastorius and the melodic invention and pure daring of mid-to-late-sixties McCartney!" What l got was, "Is that you'?" after each instrument began playing in the first song. Wearily, I had to explain to my parents that I was not the drummer, guitarist or singer in the band in a tone normally used by Primary School teachers to backward five year olds; I was in fact, making that low sort of ploddy, thumpy sort of noise that you could barely hear. 

My father looked puzzled as he struggled with the concept of playing an instrument no-one notices until it stops or goes wrong. My mother however was able to summon up a comment that almost killed all my musical aspirations stone dead. With a withering, pitying smile she fixed me with a kind of "I’m sorry; your pet puppy has just been run over” look and said, "I bet that’s much harder to play than it actually sounds?

The Worst Gig Ever Part One - Bolton


With a cover like this, how could we fail...

Ask a musician about the best gig they’ve ever played and you’ll get nothing but head scratching and stumbled words. Ask them about the worst and you’ll get dates, places, times – all in the most minute detail. Which goes to show that we’re a defeatist lot with just gallows humour to keep us going. Everyone has a war story of such terrible magnitude that it’s a miracle anyone ever gets on stage…but we do. I guess we want to be loved, or as Rick Savage of Def Leppard so succinctly puts it…. “Basically it's just down to the fact that we're all posers. We all want to go out on stage, pose, wear dinky white boots, tight trousers and have all the girls looking at our bollocks”. Nicely put Sav…

 

Here is my war story.


I let the shirt do the talking
It’s 1990. My hotshot Indie outfit ‘Little Red Schoolhouse’ are just about to release an album. We can fill most Pub/Club sized venues in a twenty mile radius of Birmingham; we’ve had John Peel airplay and appeared on local radio so many times, we’re blasé about it. We think we’re hot shit, in other words. We need to prove this to the world, so we do what every other band does and hire a transit van and take our music to the people (maaan). And on this occasion, we take it to the people of Bolton. For any non UK readers, Bolton is a town in Northern England, approximately 80 miles from Birmingham. Now I realise that my American friends would travel this distance to buy a packet of cigarettes and a newspaper, but to us British, this is A Long Way. Especially on a Tuesday night. I’ve spoken to the survivors of this ghastly experience and no-one can tell me why we thought Bolton was going to welcome us with open arms or why we chose this particular venue, but with a song in our hearts, the four members of the band, plus our legendary Roadie/tambourine virtuoso ‘Wildman’, climbed aboard the van and headed north on a cold winters night. A few non-threatening flakes of snow pitter-pattered on the windscreen, but spirits were high. We got to the venue –the name of which has been cruelly excised from my memory - and we unloaded our equipment. The stage area was upstairs. As a rule of thumb, the stage area is ALWAYS upstairs, or in the case of one storey buildings, in the basement. Either way, there are always stairs. So we wrestled the equipment upstairs and surveyed the scene. It was a typical back room of a pub – there was a five inch high wooden platform at one end of the room which was the performance area which would probably been suitable for a small boy playing the accordion but it was still larger than we were used to. Cheerfully, we set up…drumkits were built, amps turned on and guitars tuned – so far, so good.

Eventually, we caught sight of the landlord of the pub- a pimpled youth who looked too young to get served in a bar let alone run one. He was accompanied by an elderly lady we took to be his mother and a barmaid in her early twenties. No one came up to say hello, so we got on with it. After a while, Andy, our lead singer/guitarist went up to the baby faced barman and asked where the PA was. Babyface pointed to two speakers, suspended from the ceiling. ‘Those are speakers’ said Andy, confused… ‘The PA is what you plug stuff into…’ the Barman scratched his head and muttered something about ‘the contract’ which none of us had seen. In fact, the only contact we had had with the bar was a phone call where we were told to turn up promptly and send some posters. The same posters which were sitting unused on a chair on the stage. It was at this point that I began to feel uneasy. I then looked around the bar. The only evidence of any ‘promotion’ for tonight’s event was a chalkboard behind the bar with the words ‘Tonight: Little Red and the Schoolhouse’ which made us sound like the backing band for a local prostitute. Anyway, Babyface was adamant that we should have bought a PA amp and stomped off to try and find us something ‘from out the back’. After about twenty minutes, he emerged with a desk mounted microphone about the size of a telephone directory with a curved horn protruding from it…the kind of thing a 1920s taxi controller would use. When we pointed out that Andy would have to lie on the floor and sing with one finger on the ‘talk’ button, Babyface seemed to think this was a viable option.

Sometimes, one needs to state the obvious.
(It is at this point, gentle reader that I have to tell you a little about myself. When it comes to alcohol, I am a lightweight. Whenever I gig, I treat myself to a bottle of Budweiser to take the edge of any nerves and that’s it. On this night however, I decided that blissful oblivion was the way to go and my single, pre gig beer became two, then three…and so on).

But back to the story…Babyface was dispatched to find something we could use to sing through…at this point, even a rolled up newspaper would have done. He came back with the kind of microphone that came free with a 1970s music centre. The lead was about five feet long and held together with sticky tape. To make it work, it had to be plugged into the spare input on Andy’s Fender guitar amp which gave the vocals a certain ‘Stephen Hawking’ ambience. We also had to gaffa tape it to a cymbal stand, much to our drummer Gary’s chagrin. But we soldiered on. There were about 20 people in the bar when started to play, including the obligatory drooling drunk. Fortunately for me, at a table by the stage were two rather attractive young ladies, who got the full benefit of my ‘hot stage moves’ (cough). We struggled manfully through our hour long set, said ‘Thank you Bolton and goodnight’ and I trotted off to see Babyface for our fee. ‘You ain’t finished’ he replied in a charmless bark. ‘Bands that play ‘ere play for an hour an’ ‘alf…it’s in t’contract”. I replied that we hadn’t seen ‘t’contract’ and that we had an hours worth of material and that’s all. ‘Then ya dunt get paid’ came the reply. I relayed this information to my colleagues and unsurprisingly it was greeted with less than joy. After a brief discussion, we decided that rather than repeat numbers we had already played, we would play the Velvet Undergrounds’ ‘Sweet Jane’ for 30 minutes. 30 minutes exactly. I decided I needed something to make this egregious occurrence slightly more palatable and marched to the bar and ordered two large whiskeys which I downed in about 20 seconds. Now, I was ready.

We lurched into the cyclical chord progression. Andy decided he was just going to sing and left his guitar on the stand and improvised often profane variations on one of Lou Reeds’ finest works, whilst glaring at Babyface, who seemed oblivious to it all. By now, I was steaming drunk and barely capable of playing the incredibly simple bass line. Occasionally, I would stop to steady myself on the drumkit or reach forward and steal the drinks from the table of the two nice young girls, who now looked at me like I was a basket case. Our drummer and guitarist diligently plugged away with murder in their eyes. About twenty minutes into this interminable dirge, I decided I needed a rest and found a suitable place for a lie down…a ‘bench’ about 18” wide. Perfect! I gingerly manoeuvred myself into a horizontal position and continued to plunk away whilst grinning inanely and looking at the ceiling. Something felt wrong…and then it occurred to me that I was lying on the railing at the top of the staircase and to my immediate right was a thirty foot drop to the ground floor. With all the elegance I could muster, I got back into an upright position and carried on, pausing only to yell ‘Sweeetchaynee!’ into the toy microphone. This herculean effort and my lack of multi-tasking skills meant that I had no idea what bass notes I should be playing and had to stare intensely at Derek the guitarists fingers on the fretboard of his Strat to have any idea where I was in the song. After EXACTLY 30 minutes, in the middle of a chorus, Andy yelled ‘STOP!’ and walked straight over to the bar for the fee. But Babyface was nowhere to be seen. Andy asked the barmaid where he was and she opened the door to the stockroom…there was Babyface in the middle of a passionate and noisy clinch with the woman we took to be his mother. It was at that moment I decided I needed another drink. Whilst at the bar, I was slapped hard on the back by the obligatory drooling drunk – obviously feeling I was a kindred spirit – and with his face about an inch from mine he yelled that we were ‘the best thing he’d seen since Hendrix!’ Given that he looked about 30, he was either a precocious gig-goer or, more likely, King of the Bullshitters. Anyway, he bought me a drink and then fell down most of the stairs.

To make matters even more bizarre, one of the twenty punters turned out to be the music critic from the local paper and collared us for an interview. Andy decided he wanted nothing to do with it and sat on his amp, drinking heavily and shouting at Babyface who was still French-kissing his septuagenarian 'girlfriend'. The intrepid reporter placed his portable tape recorder on the beer soaked table in front of us and I immediately broke it. He carried on. Gary and Derek tried to keep it together and said all the right things, whilst I just sang Judas Priest songs into the microphone of the broken tape machine. At the end of this mercifully brief ordeal, he asked for an address to which he could send a copy of the paper. Quick as a flash, I grabbed a beermat and wrote something on it. Obviously not my address as we never saw a copy. Probably just as well.

The next hour is a blank. I have no idea how my gear ended up in the van or if we ever received the £50 from Babyface. My next memory is sitting on the wheel arch in the back of the van feeling cold and nauseous. ‘I need a Pee’ said Wildman. ‘Me too’, said Derek and Gary. Rather than pull into a service station, Andy immediately wrenched the van to the side of the road and flung open the doors. By now, the light scattering of snowflakes had turned into a blizzard and we were ankle deep in white slush. On leaving the van, the three intrepid travellers had to go down a fairly sharp incline to get to the nearest tree to pee against. All well and good on the way down, but due to the weather conditions and the inebriated state they found themselves in, no one could get back to the van. They would get halfway up and then slip down like contestants on some unholy episode of ‘Total Wipeout’. I was alerted to their plight by the screams and profanities which shattered the peaceful night air. I fell out of the van to see what the commotion was, to be greeted by the sight of three soaking, mudsplattered figures yelling at me for a hand. I am not proud of this, dear reader, but I laughed so much at their condition, I was completely incapable of reaching down and pulling them up. Eventually, they scrambled back to the roadside. I think Gary may have punched me, as I found a large bruise on my side at a later date, but my recollections are hazy. Andy stayed in the driver’s seat, fingers gripping the wheel, staring intensely ahead….

We crawled home. We got about ten miles from Birmingham when a pointless argument over some piece of trivia broke out. Wildman, drunk and belligerent started to bang on the metal side of the van shouting ‘let me out you bunch of f**kers’. So at 5.30 on a snowy, windswept winter’s morning, we left one of our dearest friends at a bus stop in the middle of nowhere, safe in the knowledge that he wouldn’t see any evidence of public transport for at least two hours. It took about two miles for good sense to prevail and we turned around and picked him up, still standing at the bus stop, shivering, with just a Sonic Youth T shirt to keep him from hyperthermia. The rest of the journey was travelled in total silence.

Mercifully, I was the first to be dropped off at home. So, at six thirty in the morning – half an hour before I had to get up to go to work – I extracted myself woozily from the van. After removing my amp, two basses and a plastic carrier bag full of leads, spare strings etc, I steadied myself against a rather lovely Oak tree on the traffic island in the middle of my street and puked over my Chelsea boots. Full of self loathing and feeling like I had moments to live, I brought my gaze upwards from my ruined footwear to be greeted by the faces of the postman, the milkman and my next door neighbour, just arriving home from the nightshift. With all the dignity I could muster (i.e., no dignity at all) I dragged myself and my gear (leaving the bag full of leads, spare strings etc under the tree) into my house. I made myself the strongest coffee I could keep down, ironed a shirt and went to work.

On arrival, my colleagues took one look at my deathly pallor and put me on a chair in the stockroom with a telephone in my hand. Here, I dozed all day and if a member of the management team was in the area, I was nudged awake and began barking a non-existent stock order to a non existent supplier. Propped up with Tea, doughnuts and Guarana, I made it through the day. Just.  When I got home, I retrieved my plastic bag full of leads, spare strings and now, melted snow etc, from under the tree, cleaned my Chelsea boots, applied some styling mousse to my hair and got myself ready. Well, I had a gig in Liverpool that night….
The sunglasses cost £1.00

10CC "Sheet Music" 33 1/3 Proposal

(A little background...in March 2008, I submitted a proposal for the excellent "33 1/3" series of books. Sadly, it didn't get picked, but I've always liked what I wrote... and I do love 10CC so here it is - my consolation prize to myself...)
 
I was eleven years of age in 1974. Chubby, bespectacled and lisping. I may as well have had ‘Kick Me Hard’ embroidered on the back of my anorak. I was too clever for the bullies, not clever enough for my teachers and the thought of any kind of organised sport filled me with an icy dread. Ritual humiliation in nylon shorts wasn’t my favourite way to spend a wet Tuesday afternoon. In spite of all that, I think I got off lightly in the exquisite torture chamber of ‘the best years of your life’, because I had one unique talent. I knew everything about The Hit Parade. Not the LP charts with its weird melange of bearded virtuosos crafting concept albums and the hastily assembled album’s of songs by faded stars, new Pop sensations and tortured singer-songwriters. No… my forte was the singles chart. In the playground, I was seen as a sort of wise elder of the tribe and as such, immune to the lion’s share of the beatings handed out by ‘The Rough Boys.’ Apparently, knowing far from intimate facts about The Sweet is tantamount to having an invisible shield around you. The source of my power was my radio… My baby blue Binatone wireless went everywhere with me and although the dial held the promise of a whole world of music, it may as well have had just one setting -247 metres on the Medium Wave -Radio 1.
 
I loved that station and I loved that radio. I’d plug its single earpiece in my right ear and let that fizzy signal take me to a place where no one laughed at my hand knitted tank tops. This world was a million miles away from the three day weeks and the terrorism which haunted reality. This was Panavision and Technicolor. Of course, this was only background information in comparison to the visual overload of ‘Top Of The Pops’. Every Thursday night, the nation would gather around their only-just-about colour TVs and would be either enraptured or appalled by what they saw. ‘Serious’ music fans  - devotees of Oldfield, Wakeman, ‘The Floyd’ and all those bands comprised of bearded Germans didn’t complain though. TOTP (as no one called it at the time) was so far beneath them that they’d get nosebleeds just thinking about it. Which they didn’t, as they had ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ where everyone played live, never smiled, wore brushed denim and was ugly.
 
Yeah, in the playground, I was king and I thought I knew it all. I knew Alvin Stardust’s real name. I knew the Glitter band had two drummers. I knew I felt a bit funny when I saw Suzi Quatro, but I didn’t know why. Only one band were a mystery…
 
10CC
They were on the radio all the time, but no-one knew anything about them. They looked a bit like an ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’ type of band, but they were on TOTP a lot. And when they were, instead of the usual silver satin hotpants, they wore earnest expressions, neatly creased jeans and blow dried centre partings. They sounded…odd. One single would sound like those old Rock and Roll tunes which were re-issued with alarming regularity during the early 70s. Another would sound like a showtune. Another would sound a bit ‘Whistle Test’, but with a great hookline that burrowed its way into your subconscious. But that was all I knew. Occasionally a girls teen mag would have a soft focus picture of all four of them, but with Eric Stewart (nominally, the girls favourite) towards the front. Never a biography. Their favourite colours and what they looked for in a girl remained undisclosed. They looked awkward in photographs and resembled geeky university students who were still dressed by their mothers.  But they were still Pop stars. I was hooked and I didn’t know how or why.
 
To be fair, everyone was a bit confused in the early 70’s. The sixties had finished, but the hangover persisted well into the following decade. With the Lovable Moptops out of the picture, we needed direction and a clear sense of something happening. What we got was a blindfolded trolley dash through Tin Pan Alley, grabbing the shiniest or the most elaborate items on display. The gulf between ‘Pop’ and ‘Rock’ couldn’t have been wider than in 1974. David Bowie had hit singles, but they were perceived as calling cards for his ‘serious’ albums. Slade tried hard to be the tough, rockin’ band they aspired to be, but were constantly depth charged by Dave Hills’ toothy grin and tinfoil stage gear. 10CC slipped neatly under the wire. Devoid of any discernable image, they sneaked into the singles charts singing about prison riots, the economic downturn and how love songs (the lingua franca of Pop) were ‘silly’. Their albums offered further subtle deviation. Their debut album mixed bubblegum Doowap pastiche with 12 bar Blues tunes about drug addiction and a heartfelt tribute to Charles Atlas. ‘Sheet Music’-their second LP- went even further. This is where I came in. After a period of protracted and heavy negotiation with The Parents, I was furnished with the funds to purchase my third Long Player. (Benny Hill and Herman’s Hermits were one and two, in case you were interested).  After drawing my gaze away from the searing yellow of the cover (and Kevin Godley wearing what seems to be a dressing gown) I slipped the record out of its dust jacket and placed it on the turntable of my not-quite-Dansette. Pretty quickly, I came to a simple conclusion. This was the greatest music I had ever heard.
 

There are 10 songs on ‘Sheet Music’. The album is 37 minutes long. It was filed under ‘Pop’ in your local Woolworths, alongside David Essex and The Wombles. Let’s examine the lyrical content shall we?  We’ll start, song-by-song, with side one….


1. ‘Big business is shafting everyone and no one can do anything about it’. (Also note the use of the phrase ‘screw me’, which didn’t halt its progress into the UK Top 10).


2. ‘Our band is terrible, but we still sell millions of records’. What a refreshing outlook. (Also note the use of the phrase ‘up yours’, which did halt its progress into the UK Top 10)


3. The pros and cons of tourism. And racism. And xenophobia.


4. ‘Aren’t some people too old to being playing Pop Music?’ (Mick Jagger was 30 at the time)


5. ‘I am a bomb on board an airplane, waiting to blow up’. We also hear the thoughts of the airplane here as well. Balance is everything.


Now side Two:


6. ‘Love songs are trite and stupid’


7. A charming and heartfelt homage to the golden age of movies


8. A beginner’s guide to voodoo


9. A dance craze aimed at alcoholics


10. The current state of Middle-Eastern terrorism


And the tunes…brimming with ideas and invention, but all reined in with a lovely, elasticated Pop sensibility. What they also had was the ability to make an album with such a disparate selection of themes and styles and hone it into something which doesn’t sound like a jukebox.
 
‘Sheet Music’ was released into a Pop culture which was so far removed from reality you almost needed a passport to enter it. As IRA bombs blew a hole in the centre of Birmingham, the Bay City Rollers topped the album charts. We huddled in our kitchens, playing pontoon by the candlelight, waiting for the power cut caused by the fuel crisis to end, while Rick Wakeman jostled for the top slot with Perry Como, Slade and The Carpenters. You want gritty social realism? Turn the radio off.  ‘Sheet Music’ however, manages to hold a mirror up to contemporary society, whilst giving it the finger and a lingering French kiss, all at the same time. The album is an unassuming masterpiece. But the album (or the band) will never be listed in one of those ‘best bands/albums/haircuts of the 70’s’ TV programmes which litter our screens in the small hours of the morning. Yet they’ve had 9 Top 40 albums and 12 Top 40 singles in the 70’s, three of which were UK number ones. Their most recent compilation CD sailed easily into the UK top 50 and they can still fill 2-3000 seater venues. Critically however, they’re off the map. I believe the phrase is ‘Only popular with the public…’


That is why I want to write this book.


For a band with such a rich and fascinating history, 10CC has been poorly served when it comes to the printed word. Alongside the occasional fanpiece in the aforementioned teenmags (and the odd mention in the ‘serious’ Music press), there are just two full length books about the band, both of which are well out of print. The most recent (Liam Newton’s ‘Worst band In The World’) crops up on Ebay from time to time. It sells for the cost of a modest sofa. Both books offer an excellent overall impression of the band, but being given the luxury of just being able to focus on this one album would mean I could concentrate on the two main areas which (in my opinion) gave the album it’s shape and form:


The way they plugged the gap between Pop and Rock


and:


The way they integrated a vast number of contemporary issues into their material, which none of their peers – ‘serious bands’ or otherwise – would have dared to do.



The best music happens when the creators show no respect for musical boundaries. The Beatles mixed Rock and Roll with a strong Music Hall sensibility and breathed life into a dying genre, perceived as nothing more than a novelty. The Byrds then combined that hybrid with ylan, then Shankar, then Parsons to create something far greater than the sum of the parts. Steely Dan, Led Zeppelin, Radiohead…all these bands straddle borders beautifully and sound all the better for doing so. 10CC managed to do that so successfully that they went from being described as ‘Pop’ to ‘Progressive’ almost overnight. There is a precedent for that, of course – both King Crimson and Gentle Giant have Pop skeletons in their cupboards, but both those bands changed their sound (and image) to appeal to more ‘serious’ fans. 10CC did it by simply stretching a tune or two over four minutes long. 


I fully intend to contact all the key figures attached to the making of this album. Fortunately, all four members of the band are still alive and active in the Music Industry – Graham Gouldman helms a version of 10CC (along with longtime members Paul Burgess and Rick Fenn) who are soon to embark on a sell-out tour of Europe, Eric Stewart is about to release his fourth solo album, Lol Crème is working alongside such luminaries as Trevor Horn in The Producers and Kevin Godley is working with Gouldman in the GG06 project. He also made a memorable return to the live stage last year (after almost 30 years) with 10CC to sing ‘Old Wild Men’ – a standout track from this album. I’d also like to speak to the venerable George Hardie (of Hipgnosis fame) to ask him about the concept behind the eyecatching cover and graphics of the album. All these people live and work no further than 100 miles from where I sit to write this.


I was fifteen years of age in 1978. That was the year I saw my first live band. The band was 10CC. The first song they played was ‘The Wall Street Shuffle’ – the first song on ‘Sheet Music’.


It changed my life.


That is why I want to write this book.

I was a post teenage coverband Bassist

This man's bottom is the wrong way around.
It’s a time honoured scenario, played out in grey community centres almost every week. Down a dingy corridor, the walls painted hospital blue, stands a room. There is a tattered, handwritten sign Blutacked to the door which just hints at what lies within. Inside is the usual collection of debris – metal backed chairs stacked clumsily in a corner, an upended table tennis table with distressed nets and boxes of filthy costumes once used for a pantomime a lifetime ago. As well as this flotsam and jetsam are some human detritus - a dozen men sit in a ragged circle in the middle of the room. All are dressed in various shades of grey or black. None are clean shaven. The main thing they have in common is the haunted look they have in their eyes. These men are pariahs. Outcasts. The dispossessed. Some nurse plastic cups of foul tasting coffee, whilst others stare at their shoes. No one talks. No one has to. Occasionally, one will look at the wall, with its sad collection of posters for Village Fetes which were inevitably rained off or self-help groups which closed due to lack of interest. The pendulous silence is broken only by the ceaseless rain on the fly-blown windows and the buzzing of the strip lighting which casts a sickly yellow glow over everything.   I feel strangely comfortable here. These are my people and we have shared much without ever having met. Few would be willing to live how we do. After what seems like an hour, the door creaks open and another grey man enters – younger this time and carrying a brown cardboard clipboard, bristling with curling A4 paper. He talks for a while. No-one listens. The words he speaks are as familiar to these people as The Lord’s Prayer…or The Last Rites. Eventually he stops and gestures to me. Although I have never been here before, I know exactly what I must do. Unsteadily, I climb to my feet, feeling strangely calm in spite of the dryness of my mouth and the clamminess of my palms. I start to talk – my voice sounding eerily distant as the words come forth…
“Hi, my name’s Ian and I play Bass in a tribute band….”
This can't be the real Kiss - no one is wearing a wig...
 
Nowadays, it seems that  (to some musicians at least) if you play in a covers, functions or tribute band you are up there with Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot and should be shipped off to some offshore correctional facility and made to play ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ until you chew your own ears off. But to those musicians, the people that write their own material are bungling, deluded amateurs who just get in the way of the real talent and make them look bad.
Erm, aren’t we all on the same side?
 
If I see one more post along the lines of ‘it’s all tribute and cover bands round here and no-one else can get a gig’ I may cry. Speaking as a humble Bassist who’s done both the covers thing and fought in the trenches playing original music, I think I have a good idea of how it works. Guys (that’s the non-gender-specific use of the word) in covers and tribute  bands have an advantage in the early stages of their career as Joe Public kinda knows what to expect. If you see Nearvana or Byron Adams or one of the other imaginatively named combos on the scene advertised on a poster or the Interweb, you know how your evening’s entertainment will pan out. Whether they are any good or not is another thing entirely. With a band that writes their own material, you get people to gigs by sweet talking, emotional blackmail and low level bullying initially. And then you graft. And often it’s the quality of grafting and the tenacity and persistence of the band that are the deciding factors in the success of the group – more than the quality of the material. I can name a dozen great songwriters and amazing musicians who have bowed out of the musical rat race because they lack the stomach for the real hustle. And who can blame them?
As a bassist in a covers/tribute band, I have effectively capped my earnings. With the exception of The Bootleg Beatles, The Australian Pink Floyd and Oasis (KIDDING!), bands like mine never rise above the 200-300 venue ceiling. If your career takes off in an original band – “Hello Wembley”… The other gripe is that ‘Every local venue just puts on tributes’…well, that as we say in Halesowen, is BullPlop. There are a handful of local venues round these parts which specialise in cover/tribute bands, but by the same token, there are WAY more that may turn their noses up at By Jovy or MaltLoaf etc. And if you really are stuck in a venueless void, find a pub, community centre, leisure centre etc, hire/buy a vocal PA and put your own damn gig on. Guerrilla gigs are so 21st century right now.
The prejudice works both ways, with rather superior trib musos looking down their noses at the ‘wannabees’ who write their own material. To them I say that hopefully one of those ‘wannabees’ will hire your band to play at the celebration party for their quadruple platinum album. Right now, that band playing original material may not have ‘the chops’ but they may have something way more useful – potential.
What we sometimes forget is that we’re all in the entertainment industry. Some people like to be entertained by something familiar. Some people like to seek out The Next Big Thing. These people pay our wages and they deserve something which doesn’t insult them. Rather than wasting time bitching, I suggest we go back to the rehearsal room, the kitchen table or wherever the muse may strike and get better at what we do.
Just sayin’…

The Worst Gig Ever' #2: The Breedon Bar


The late, lamented Breedon bar. Oh the memories...

I’ve played in a lot of bands. I’m serious…a LOT of bands. Most of these were pretty groovy – nice chaps, good tunes, some enjoyable roadtrips and a hatful of good memories. Obviously, no riches or enormous fame or I’d have one of my uniformed minions type this for me whilst I snacked on a Swans Neck Kebab, but some good times. With the good, with depressing inevitability, must come the bad. Hot on the heels of my last ‘Rushbo’s Guide’ post, here’s part two…just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, along comes…The Bikers Wake.


It’s very rare that any of my Pop Combos are in the right place at the right time, but it did happen once. It’s the early 90s and everyone is tearing holes in their jeans, buying Fuzzboxes and generally ‘Rocking Out’. And so was I. This time around I was the Bassist in the delightfully named ‘Diabolo Go’. Our speciality…Pearl Jam meets the Manic Street Preachers, topped with some pseudo Jim Morrison-esque lyrics. We ticked all the right boxes and the only thing that held us back was the fact that we hailed from Birmingham – then about as hip as Pat Boone. But we rehearsed our butts off and we were a decent little Rockin’ band.

Ah rehearsals…we shared a local rehearsal space with a local (and very successful) Prog Rock band called Ark. Very big in Italy they were, apparently. The facility was run by an affable chap called Fin, notable for being the Bassist in a Metal band called The Handsome Beasts. Never has a band been LESS aptly named. Now this is where the story starts…

It was a Tuesday night and probably drizzling outside. Not that we would have known as our lock-up was untroubled by natural light…or ventilation. But we liked it that way. We were halfway through one of our thinly veiled excuses for a Wah-wah freakout, when in runs Fin in a state of high excitement, waving his arms for us to stop. ‘Lads, lads…I’ve got a gig for you! No money, but a massive Rock audience. Get in the Transit van, we’ve only got an hour to get there!’  No money. There was never any money. Excited by the opportunity to play in front of something other than Arks intimidating and expensive Italian funded equipment, we loaded our gear into the back of Fin’s van and set off. Uncharacteristically, I blagged the shotgun seat and started to get a few details about this mysterious, impromptu gig. Apparently, the organisers had been let down by a band at the last minute and the venue owner turned them on to Fin. ‘Sounds plausible’, thought I. He was a bit more reticent about the remaining arrangements, but I was prepared to let that go. After all, it was a gig in front of a ‘big Rock audience’.

The gig turned out to be at The Breedon bar. A great venue – I’d seen a ton of bands there and some of my heroes (American Music Club! Green On Red!) had graced the stage. So far so good. We pulled into the car park which was FULL of expensive and opulently chromed motorbikes. Proper motorbikes. ‘Easy Rider’ motorbikes. Oh jeez…it’s a bikers gig. Now for some reason, I’ve never really got on with the biking fraternity…I am sure they’re all lovely people who spend freely at the bar and do tons of charity work, but I just feel incredibly uncomfortable in their presence. And there were about 200 of ‘em in pretty small space, right here. We unloaded the van and my apprehension was shared by the rest of the guys in the band. No one seemed to be having a lot of fun – in fact there was a really sombre air in the place. Wait a minute…why are all these guys wearing black armbands? Yep. It was a wake. Fin had tricked us into playing a wake. No wonder the other band had pulled out.


"It just needs cleaning..."
We unloaded the gear. ‘Led Zeppelin IV’ played over the PA and no-one smiled. Occasionally a glass smashed and voices were raised, followed by an uneasy détente. This was not going to be a good night for anyone, especially us. I dutifully set up my trusty Bass, taking care to put it into dropped D tuning for our first, epic number. Satisfied, I left the stage and hid in the toilet for about 20 minutes. It was in there that I heard the sound of music…not ‘Led Zeppelin IV’ which had been playing on a loop since our arrival, but a Bluesy jam. I left the safety of the urinal, only to find three bikers had ‘borrowed’ our gear and were jamming away in the key of A. All apart from the guy on the Bass – sorry, MY Bass, who was looking bemused. I jumped on stage and told him the Bass was in a weird tuning and maybe I should carry on from here. He grunted and thrust the Bass back at me. I strapped it on and ploughed through ten minutes of lack-lustre 12 bar strummage. After that, we had a few minutes before showtime, so I raced to the bar to get something to take the mania off the whole sorry affair. It was there I met the erstwhile Bassist who told me the back story to the gig. Apparently, the wake was for a biker in a local chapter who had come off his bike in ‘dubious circumstances’. ‘See them?’ he pointed at a group in the corner. ‘They reckon he was killed by them’. He pointed to an equally dour looking bunch. ‘But they…’ he pointed to a third group ‘reckon it was them’. He pointed to a fourth. ‘So why aren’t they beating each other up?’ I asked, nervously. ‘Truce’ he replied. ‘Until midnight tonight’. I checked my watch. 10.50pm. Shit. I quickly shared this information with my bandmates and we ran on stage to get this over with. We waited patiently for ‘Stairway To Heaven’ to finish as we thought we’d be beaten up if we interrupted that… Finally, we caught our breath and lurched into song number one. And so it began….

The first song had a great ‘car crash’ ending where we all played the final chord over and over, finishing off with a highly choreographed KA-BLAMM! accompanied by a heroic, Iggy-esque leap into the air. One person clapped. It was Fin on the sound desk. We raced through an hours worth of material in 50 minutes. It was at this gig we realised that almost all of our songs had the words ‘Death’, ‘Ghost’ or ‘Murder’ in the lyrics, which were hastily changed on the fly by our quick thinking and terrified lead vocalist. After a few songs, even Fin stopped clapping and the only noises we heard between songs were the gritting of teeth, glasses breaking and the odd scuffle…and the occasional muted sob from our drummer.

'The good news is there's a big crowd out there.
The bad news is they're all carrying machetes and
baying for your blood...'
At 11.45, we finished. As the last chord rang around the room, we started yanking out jack leads and tossing equipment into the back of the van. ‘No time to put it into cases boys, just get it outta here!’ As we were frenziedly throwing stuff off the stage, a large biker collared Chrissie, our drummer. He gesticulated sharply to the aged Piano to the right of the stage. ‘Ay mate, d’yow play Pianner?’ Relieved that it wasn’t a death threat, Chrissie smiled and shook his head. ‘Y’ow can’t play the fuckin’ Drums either’ came the less than friendly retort. I have to admit that even under the shadow of doom, that made me laugh…under my breath, of course.

By 11.58, we were all in the van, bloodied but unbowed. Fin put his foot to the floor and we raced out of the car park. It was a while before anyone could speak, so the usual post gig autopsy would have to wait until another, less stressful night. About two miles down the road, we passed a fleet of Police cars racing in the opposite direction, blue lights flashing. I checked my watch. The time was 12.04