Wednesday, 24 June 2009

A band must have a van

I had one of those rare opportunities of catching up with an old ‘band mate’.

Dave and I had been members of my very first (and only) professional band Amaziah. By professional I do not mean that we were unemployed and signing on the dole, I mean we actually got paid to play. Alright fair enough, by paid I mean fifteen quid a week, but it was few years ago and even that meagre allowance meant that we were ‘professional’.

We were budding rock stars and certainly looked the part. Dave had the new wave thing going on with black spiky hair and tight jeans and I was going down the new wave of British road, long blond hair and bright green jump suit. Also to quote the Nickelback song ‘We all want to be a rock star’, “we will all be skinny because we just won’t eat”, was a quote that fitted us well. Accept in my case I just couldn’t eat. I was a typical rock god in the making, a whole bunch of neurosis bagged up together. I was so crippled with anxiety that I would puke any time I ate…but hey…it was a great look! (the skinny not the puking).

Anyway, as Dave and I shared a glass or two memories returned to a time when we had to hitchhike the entire length of the country in just one night.

You see, like many bands before and since we suffered from the malady of too much gear and not enough van.

We had an old City of Bath ambulance, which had served its purpose for the band for many years, but by now had seen much better days and certainly was struggling to cope with the weight of equipment that bands such as ours require to make the deafening din that we did.

It had already let us down on a trip to Holland when one of our road crew very helpfully made us a drum riser that doubled as a flight case. Trouble is what he hadn’t factored in was that the case was so heavy it took four burly blokes to heft into the van….empty….Loaded with all the stands and drum hardware it was impossible to lift.

However, they got it into the van regardless of the poor things feelings. It gave up on trying as soon as we reached the Hook Van Holland. We spent the rest of the tour in a hired truck, which pretty much cleared any money that we had hoped to make on that tour (so you can see why we only got fifteen quid a week can’t you).

The final straw for ‘ol Bessie’ came following a short tour of Northern Ireland during the height of the ‘Troubles’.

We had survived the ‘troubles’ and had even got away with telling one of the British troops on patrol that one of the band, who was waiting for chips in a chip shop, that he might be carrying a gun.

We thought it was funny….the soldier did not, and our drummer sure as hell didn’t. Smell it, he was sitting in it!

Anyway, the ferry journey back was pretty much as it was going, horrendous!!

You hit a point in the sea sickness when you are afraid that you are going to die, and then you get beyond that when you are afraid that you AREN’T going to die.

Believe you me. A heavy sea, a huge number of Orange Band marchers, spilt beer and wall to all vomit is probably the closest I will get to hell this side of eternity.

It was so rough that a lorry went over in the hold, and ‘Ol Bessie’ just quietly took it all, sadly sagging below the weight of our kit.

Getting off the boat involved the driver taking a run at the gang way and hoping that the gap between the boat and dock didn’t increase with the swell.

Having ‘hit’ land I fear that ‘Ol Bessie’ got a cob on, whispered in mechanical speak ‘stuff this for a game of soldiers’ and gave up the ghost. With an exasperated crunch the whole underside of the ambulance collapsed and we juddered to a halt.

We were in Stranraer, Scotland It was midnight and we were a very long way from home (Bristol).

The trouble is, I had promised my girlfriend that I would see her before she went to college in the morning (yes we were that young). She had been a bit upset about us going to Northern Ireland in the first place and so wanted to see me back home safe and sound (the fact that she has been my wife for the past 26 years probably meant that she actually liked me).

A promise is a promise and I had no intension of breaking it.

So Dave and I set off at the stroke of midnight to find our own way home.

This involved two scruffy youths in old army great coats and the air of travellers who had recently survived the Belfast/Scotland crossing, hitching a lift with whoever would give us a ride.

Well, believe it or not, we got picked up by several huge lorries that were travelling down south. They were an odd assortment I can tell you, probably why they deemed to give us a ride. One swore back was white that he was the whip playerer in Dave Dee Dozy Beaky Mick and Titch and another who we suddenly realised to our terror was fast asleep and had been for a good many miles.

However, despite the weirdoes, dangerous drivers and copious amounts of baked beans (they all insisted on stopping and having breakfast…right through the night) we made it to the outskirts of Bristol by day break and hopped on a milk float for the remainder of the journey home.

I got to see my future wife and both Dave and I managed to get to our beds to get a few hours shut eye, unlike the rest of the band and crew that ended being stuck in Scotland for days.

‘Ol Bessie’ sadly never recovered from this final insult and had to be gently but lovingly led into a field where she was shot through the head gasket.

Gone but not forgotten she was replaced by a shiny black Mercedes tour bus…which we loved, as it had proper seats.

From those days forth I dream of expensive tour buses with beds and fridges and even…dare I say it…a toilet.

Sadly, all we have these days is a humongous horse box, which still struggles under the weight. ‘Ol Bessie’ whispers to it from the beyond’, “run away, run away”.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

What a pleasant day for a cycle!

You may need to make yourself a cup of coffee, or grab a cold one before you start to read this; it’s bound to be a long one.

The Mudheads had been invited to perform at the Bristol Mountain Bike festival being held the Ashton Court estate in Bristol and we were really looking forward to it.

They had been using the same band for the Saturday night knees up for years. However, the band had got completely wasted after the last gig and had kept the entire festival awake and being that there was a huge race the following day they were asked never to return.

We had been promised an audience of hundreds, a stage, and most importantly adequate power.

So, this Saturday, CJ and I arrived at the main entrance way to the site ‘over’ laden with practically every bit of kit we processed and all set to reverse the trailer directly into the marquee and unload onto the huge stage that had been provided.


The first obstacle was the track way down to the festival itself. In that it had been raining and was the victim of pot holes you could have drowned a cow in, getting down its mile or so length was like taking a gentle meander down the Somme during the winter of 1917.

One wrong move and we could have snapped the trailer clean off of the back of CJ’s company car.

CJ was so tense he was raised a full one inch in his seat and was in serious danger of needing his buttock cheeks unclenched with a crow bar before we would be able to do anything else.

I simply sat in the passenger’s seat as white knuckled as anything I had faced at Alton Towers.

Meeting cars coming in the opposite direction resulted in a Mexican stand off on more than one occasion, given that they didn’t want to reverse all the way back down to where they came from and we simply couldn’t.

We then met one of the promoters who appeared genuinely pleased to see us (as you might imagine this was new and pleasant experience for us).

She pointed us in the general direction of where we would be playing but looked a little confused when I asked if it would be possible to reverse the trailer directly into the tent.

“You won’t be able to drive anywhere near the marquee” she said. “The main cycle track runs right down the side of it in a huge circle and the main race is on until 9pm”.

With my heart sinking into my boots I tentatively asked how close we could expect to get.

“Oh it’s not that bad” she replied, “It’s probably only about three or four hundred yards”.

Bearing in mind the image I had previously given you of a world war one battled field resplendent with trenches, shell holes and copious amounts of mud then add to it two blokes with 1 ½ tonne of expensive musical equipment, one sack truck and unsuitable shoes and you get a picture of how we felt at that moment.

I think the phrase “here we go again” rose unbidden to my lips.

Anyway, we managed to creep through the rain sodden field until we were at least in the shadow of the tent where we were to perform.

If the film “All quiet on the Western front” had done something radical and preformed the whole thing on mountain bikes then I believe this is what it would have looked like.

Hundreds of men and women, both young and old all on bikes all splattered from head to foot in a thick layer of mud.

Also imagine if you will, this scenario teamed up with a Hong Kong high street on a rainy Monday rush hour morning with a busy motor way running right through the middle of it, and this was what CJ and I were going to have to negotiate with the kit.

However, before we put our lives in the hand of the God of all mountain bikers we though we ought to assess the venue in which we were to be performing.

Again my imagined scene of a cavernous arena, bare and silent awaiting our arrival sank glugging into the glutinous earth. The scene that actually did greet us was utter chaos as the Marquee was in fact the main reception for the 1,500 people who were attending the festival and racing.

The one thing no cyclist will ever do will leave their steeds unattended, so we were greeted by a herd of mud covered racers with their bikes all jockeying for position to find when their next heat was etc ‘inside’ the tent.

No stage, and as far as I could see nowhere to put the kit.

We met the main promoter, who was a friendly, cheerful and genuinely nice guy who waved us over to one end of the tent and told us to “set up where you like”, which strictly speaking meant in between a guy who was running a couple of turntables with loud thumping dance music, and the bar (a BBQ table piled high with cans of Stella and Red Bull.)

Again the friendliness of the disco and the couple running the bar was such that we knew that what ever we faced it would be overcomable and all done with the best possible good will.

Mind you I really didn’t believe my heart could sink any further than it had done until I found out where our power was coming from. One single four way plug that was being run off of a generator. “Don’t worry”, chirped the organiser “I got some extra petrol in, just in case” (I wasn’t really sure if he meant to power the generator or to finish off the job should we set the whole place on fire).

In cases such as this we always politely decline to use our lights as the resulting power draw would normally plunge the venue into silent darkness as we killed all the power. However, a further inspection revealed that the marquee didn’t in fact have any lights……at all!! We were going to have to chance it and plug everything including all our lights through the one four way plug and hope we didn’t overload the whole lot.

We set about unloading the trailer and must have resembled the Chuckle Brothers on parade (if you are not British or have never watched children’s television think Laurel & Hardy without the talent) as we teetered on the edge of the track’ flanked by muddy cyclists, looking for a space to literally leg it across the open space to the safety of the other side.

We were painfully aware of the embarrassment that flooring a winning competitor with the sharp end of a bass cabinet 20 yards from the finishing line would cause.

Anyway, by the grace of God, a good wind and the cheerful disposition of the riders we transferred the entire content of the trailer and the car across the field and track and into the tent. Literally within 30 seconds of us closing the doors of the trailer for the last time Aaron and our sound man Jim arrived (my son’s timing as always being impeccable). I thought if he grumbled just once about how hard his day had been, he would experience what the suffragette who threw herself under the hooves of the Kings horse at the turn of the last century felt. Except instead of hooves, they would have been mountain bike wheels.

Don’t ask me how we did it, but by the hour that we had been told we were to play arrived we were ready to rock & roll.

We had been told 9:30pm and so when it came, Jim cranked up the PA and we were off!!

That was until a panic stricken promoter ran in clutching a haul of medals….it would appear that they had in fact only just started the award ceremony just outside the tent and we had drowned the lot out…..oops!!

We kicked our heels for another 25 minutes whilst the brave individuals who had risked their lives for the sake of bicycle glory were showered with praise and we availed ourselves of some of the 10,000 cans of Red Bull that had been donated to the festival.

When the nod came to return to playing we were as jittery as a Politian who was having his expenses investigated.

What followed was probably one of the most enjoyable two hours of the bands history.

I couldn’t tell you exactly how many people were in that tent but it had to be hundreds and they were mad for it. Bodies flying everywhere, singing, dancing with the occasional reveller being hurled into us by his friends (I narrowly risked having my teeth removed by my own microphone on several occasions). However, the cheer that went up in between each song was adrenalin pumping and was a timely reminder of why we got into rock music in the first place.

Before we left the stage (area) following tumultuous applause, the promoter bounded up and shouted to the crowd that “we have our new resident festival band, for ever and ever”. The crowd roared their approval.

To say that egos had been well and truly tickled would be an understatement.

However, without adding a dour edge to the whole proceedings, the enormity of what was to come was already firmly placed in the back of our minds…the get out!!

The urgency of this whole operation was bolstered by the sound of the increasingly heavy rain bouncing off of the tent and the organiser pointing out that his additional fuel for the generator was almost depleted and at some point in the imminent future we were going to be plunged into the inky blackness of a large field, at midnight in the pouring rain.

The race was on.

I do not exaggerate when I say that Jim was carrying the very last mic stand to the trailer when the comforting chugging sound of the generator ceased and all went silent…and dark.

One more hurdle faced us. Getting back through the Somme in conditions that were fifty times worse then when we had arrived.

Every buttock was clenched as we slipped and slewed across the field towards the entrance way, praying every inch of the way that the wheels wouldn’t suddenly start spinning, because if they did…..we would be there for the night.

However, we made the main gate, which was locked. No worries we had been warned. The key was under a rock.

I unlocked the gate, rain pouring down my neck and waved the two vehicles through. I then locked the gate behind me and set about the risky task of climbing back over the slippery gate in the wet. At this point CJ thought it would be hilarious to switch out all his car lights. Oh how I laughed.

They laughed even harder when having climbed back over the gate, getting soaked in the process, I realised that I could have gone around it.

However, all in all, it’s the rock & roll life for me and I for one am really looking forward to an invite back next year. We had a great night, and as I have mentioned, you couldn’t have met a friendlier more enthusiastic bunch of people if you had tried.

It’s just that next year, I’m buying a pair of wellies.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Back to the blogg

My apologies that I have not penned anything for nearly a month now, this is especially important as articles I write for you good folk are my source for a column that I now scribble for Bristol Rocks called “The Loader Lectures”.

Truth be known it is getting increasingly difficult to write witty observations on an industry that is becoming more and more depressing.

Venues we once loved are closing their doors.

Places that were once reliable and never any trouble are pulling fast ones on artistes and refusing to pay the agreed amount promised on the night.

Once great venues for a good night’s rock & roll are now crawling with underage drinkers, utterly gazebo’d on half a cider and black.

And even the most enthusiastic supporters of local music are generally giving up and moving on to other things.

It all sounds like doom and gloom, however this isn’t always the case. We have discovered that the good folks of Yeovil, Somerset REALLY know how to rock (despite making me look young) and we have the British Mountain Bike festival tomorrow, where we are being guaranteed a crowd of at least 1200 people.

With this is mind, I will keep my finely trained brain open for literary opportunities, which I can then share with you.

Mind you, I had better get in quick. I have just discovered why I keep getting hammering headaches on a Friday morning following our rehearsal nights (no it is not down to an over abundance of the falling down juice). It would appear that making a room sound proof can also make it air tight and as the singer I am consuming far more oxygen than is available to me….hence I am probably getting a regular does of Carbon Monoxide poisoning. No wonder I couldn’t find my feet this morning.

Watch this space as to how we are going to resolve this problem (on the cheap).

Speak soon.