Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Grab & Smash

Like most people, the musician has processions that are precious to them. However; none are more precious than their instrument of choice, in my case my guitars.

Every guitar I have ever owned demands a place of affection in my heart, with the possible exception of the two twelve string acoustics I owned as a teenager, which were subsequently the only two guitars I ever got shot of.

I still have the 20 quid classical acoustic guitar that my parents bought me for my failed guitar lessons at school (my teacher did not like rock music, considering them to be sub level musicians and rock was the whole point of learning as far as I was concerned).

It may be battered, cracked to be exact, when a teenage girl I had been teasing took acceptation at one of my stupid adolescent remarks and endeavoured to kick me in the shin sadly putting a thumping great hole in my guitar instead. It wouldn’t be the last time a guitar would get between me and a girl that’s for sure. It is also pretty grubby and now lives in the loft, but I still own it. And strum it from time to time.

I have my first electric guitar, purchased for me with great love and affection by my then girlfriend, now wife. Boy has she learnt to regret that decision as she became a ‘band widow’ at a very early age and to add insult to injury Aaron, our son and Mudheads guitarist cranked out his first power chords on that thing. It now lives in his living room and it is this that he drives his fiancĂ©e nuts with as he strums away of an evening.

Each guitar for me has a story, a history a special place in my memory and heart. I would no sooner get rid of one of them than I would one of my own children.

So it was with great empathy that I stood beside Aaron at our last acoustic gig when in a fit of haste he dropped the lid of his acoustic case down onto the body of his pristine and much loved acoustic guitar and catching the body with the lids catch leaving a four inch scratch right across the front. It will be a constant reminder to him that these things apart from being extremely expensive are also fragile.

It brought memories flooding back of the two occasions (other than the kicked classical) I managed to damage guitars and that sick feeling you are left with in your gut.

The first occasion was not my fault and I had to fight the urge to separate somebody’s breath from their bodies when they knocked my bass guitar over and snapped the head stock clean off on a drum riser.

The next time was doubly sickening as in a fit of ill humour brought about by having to perform at a gig I REALLY did not want to do I snatched up my acoustic guitar not realising that I had not put the catches down on the case.

It was with that slow motion look of horror that is brought about by the inevitable disaster that is unravelling before you that painted my face as my acoustic flew out of the case, sailed across the living room and came into sharp contact with the corner of the dining table leaving a hole the size of a 50 pence piece in it. It did nothing to improve my mood that was for sure.

I have always marvelled and perhaps envied those rock guitarists that can lift their hallowed axes aloft and then smash the living daylights out of them for the edification of their audiences without bursting into tears or falling to their knees in sickening realisation of the heinous act they have just committed.

I always remember a public school boy of mine pontificating at length about how Jimi Hendrix would pour light fuel over his guitar and set fire to it out of frustration that he could not extract that perfection he so desired and sought from it.

I think probably more cynically that he realised early on that the audience were mad for it, knowledge that has forged the need for guitarists like Ritchie Blackmore taking a dedicated guitar tech on the road with him in order to reassemble the guitar he would smash every night.

However; I think I am definitely too sentimental to take such drastic action upon any of my beloved guitars and will, along with my son and heir, observe a two minute silence in recognition of the terrible scarring his guitar suffered for the sake of rock & roll.

“For those about to be scratched, we salute you”.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Size Does Matter

Back in the day, Bassbin and I hammered the final nail into the coffin that was our formal education by bunking off of the sixth form to decant to his mothers house in order to sample the forbidden pleasures of her drinks cabinet and air guitar to our spotty little hearts content to the new musical passion of our lives; New Wave.

It was 1978 and the new sound of the suburbs was being thrust at us by bands such as The Jam, The Undertones, Blondie, Eddie & the Hot Rods, The Stranglers and the Sex Pistols and we day dreamed that one day we would be producing our own two minute offerings of rock & roll paradise as with heads bowed in mock concentration and sincerity we crashed around the living room believing that we truly were, Paul Weller, Hugh Cornwall or Fergal Sharkey.

For us the much hallowed 8 minute anthems of Stairway to Heaven, Child in Time and Freebird were still held in kind regard but now much more in the vein that you esteem an elderly grandparent (“yes I know you fought in the war, but do you really have to go on about it EVEY time I see you”) and had been relegated to the song that signalled the end of the slow dances with our girlfriends during the Tuesday night Rock Shows at Tiffany’s.

In terms of our musical growth a song should now last no longer that 2 ½ minutes, 3 at the most and contain nothing that could be considered pretentious, educated or fantastic (14 minute epics about hobbits was totally out).

Now, our heads were full of the real poetry of youth; “Gordon is a Moron”; “He got an ice pick, that made his ears burn”; “Read the graffiti of a slashed seat affair”; “Teenage kicks are so hard to beat”; and of course this new found poetry had to bow to our teenage attention span and be nothing if not short!

This is something that has stuck with me and I have taken the philosophy of ‘Keep it real and keep it short’ with me into adulthood and my continued privilege to be able to perform in front of a live audience.

This very much came into play and certainly to our advantage a couple of nights ago at a popular Bristol venue called The Louisiana.

Now with most dedicated music venues these days it is policy to cram as many bands onto the night’s entertainment as you possibly can in order that you might generate a crowd.

The Louis is one of the more generous venues and only tends to put three bands on at once in the hope that each band brings at least 20 people, giving the business at least 60 paying customers through the door and about 15 band related members on top of that supping the local brew at 3 quid a pint.

Because of the number of people playing your actual performance time is restricted to strictly 30 minutes each (unless you are the headline, although we avoid that as we have noticed that the largest audience are to be found at the crossroads of the acts slap bang in the middle).

30 minutes does not give you a lot of time, especially for most of the bands we have witnessed in our 7 year history.

Normally the bands like a decent bit of ego worshipping during a song in the form of long lead guitar solos and then they like to pass the time of day by discussing the weather, cricket or who fancies who in between each number.

We have seen bands gets away with about 5 songs in total because they have spent too much time mucking about in between numbers.

I have a different philosophy. You can cram one heck of a lot of songs into 30 minutes if you keep them short and you don’t stop… all.

We went for it big time. No stops, no chance to sip water to refresh a frazzled larynx. No chance to mop perspiration soaked brows, no introductions or passing the time with the crowd.

No chance….1, 2, 3, 4 and we were off.

As I mentioned most bands manage 5 or if they are lucky 7 songs in their allotted time. We make 13, yup 13 songs and we didn’t go a minute over time.

The poor kids that had come to watch the headlining band of Artic Monkey Wanabies stood no chance. We frightened one poor girl to death with our ear splitting opening crash chord and then the onslaught.

Suddenly this group of 17 somethings were introduced to the experience their parents had had in their youths as the Punk Rock/New Wave has hit the scene and blew away the cobwebs of ‘disco’ and ‘middle of the road’.

And do you know what, they loved it.

Perhaps they felt some of the raw excitement I had felt as I pogo’d around Bassbins living room, or the sheer thrill of my very first live concert.

Maybe I did a little bit to introduce these kids to a new energy of music that is felt and lived every bit as much as it is heard.

Who knows, all I can say is that it is three days later I am still buzzing.

Incidentally, as an aside. The only member of our childhood Rock Stardom seeking triumvirate to make it through education and even onto university was Quick Sketch. He of course had to be the one that wrote a hit selling no 1 record, got the highest singles sales of the decade and he won TWO Ivor Novello awards. Somehow I think Bassbin and I might have got off at the wrong stop.

Just a thought!

Friday, 12 March 2010

Cider House Rules

Every so often a gig comes along that makes you wonder why you bother……..I’m sorry, I think I may have written this line before…on several occasions.

Anyway, Aaron & I were booked to perform at a new venue in Bristol, and by new I am referring for the promoter (a thoroughly decent guy who is committed to keeping music live in this fair city of ours) as opposed the building itself, which quite frankly looked like it had last seen a lick of paint during the Crimea War in celebration of the safe return of our brave troops.

Anyway, it was one of those gigs where the filthy lukka was waved seductively under one’s rather impoverished nose (those few months directly after Christmas are always a bit of a lean time) and so myself and the boy got ourselves booked.

I sadly had to abandon the significant birthday of an old and trusted friend in London to scream back down the motorway in order to get home in time to grab the PA and guitars and get to the venue.

I had done the obligatory promotion of the gig, sadly with no success as not one single person that we have ever met attended the session, and we set off for the venue itself.

Now I don’t know what pubs are like in other parts of the country or even the world but the West Country does seem to have its own particular brand of bar, which can only be affectionately known as ‘Cider Houses’.

This is generally a bar that is frequented by groups of men (or women) who have a rather dangerous fondness for the juice of the apple.

And when I am talking ‘Cider’ I am not referring to that nice clear fizzy stuff that is especially imported from Ireland to be consumed by groups of gay young people (and I by that I mean the traditional happy variety) in tall glasses with plenty of ice.

No, what I am referring to is ‘Scrumpy’.

It has been said that if you can see clear through a glass of cider then it isn’t scrumpy. I would say that after four pints if you can still see (or feel) your feet, then again it isn’t scrumpy.

Scrumpy is traditionally brewed in hidden places by farmers of dubious morals and reputation and includes anything they can find to lob into the mixture to give it ‘body’.

Now my father-in-law before retirement was an accountant and he once did the accounts for a rather famous West County Cider maker and was there when they emptied one of the massive vats. From within its murky depths was hoisted copious amounts of dead rats, cats, a dog and even a bicycle and this was from a reputable company with Health & Hygiene certificates and large contracts with major supermarket chains.

The scrumpy I am referring to does not fit into this category. The bodies of rats and the occasional sheep are considered to be a vital ingredient in this concoction. In fact if you are extremely lucky and you are drinking a particularly good vintage you might even find the foreskin of the original brewer in it.

It was into the domain of drinkers of this fine beverage that Aaron and I stumbled.
Every head turned to glare at us as we entered the room and the full weight of ‘cider breath’ slapped us firmly between the eyes. We had arrived, the afternoon’s entertainment, fresh meat.

As we struggled to carry our equipment down the full length of the narrow bar we were heartily jeered and heckled.

As we gingerly put together the PA the body of somebody looking, and walking, like the scarecrow in the wizard of Oz stumbled past us towards the bathroom facilities tripped over his feet and said…….”oh, tripped over your stuff I’d better make a claim”. He then collapsed into a hacking fit of laughter and smokers cough highly amused at the hilarity of his own humour.

That was irritating enough but he went through the whole routine on the return from the toilet to his seat.

Once the PA had been assembled and guitars had been tuned we set to get ourselves ready to roll.

I asked Aaron if he would like a glass of something local. His “hell no!” left me in little doubt that a couple of pints of lime and soda might be the safest option for the occasion.

We then launched into a two hour set performing to a wall.

The only people we saw were those performing the swaying dance of the sailor in rough seas as they fought their unsteady way toward the toilet and then back again. With each passage muttering some nonsensical rubbish that only they found to be in the height of good humour.

We were delighted when a group of students appeared about three songs from the end, however; we were just as quickly crestfallen as they marched as one out into the beer garden for a cigarette and to presumably converse with those already in the open air toilet.

It was a pleasant delight to get out of there with our bodies if not our egos in tacked.

I’m sure this wont be the last time I will be uttering the immortal words “Why do we bother”

Friday, 5 March 2010

Banged to rights

With all the sentimental ‘’awing’ and expressions like ‘bless’ at the end of my last blog I thought I ought to write something a little more………mean and rock & roll.

So here it is.

Over the years of touring with bands and as a solo singer it has been my lot to perform in a variety of prisons.

The first time I had this experience was in a maximum security prison in Holland. Amongst the inmates that were to be watching us were a group of Molaccan highjackers that had perpetrated a two week long siege on a Dutch railway train that ended with the deaths of 2 hostages and six highjackers. The story had gripped the world and now we were to meet its stars face to face.

It was this group of young guys (most no older than us…and we were all teenagers) that greeted us as we clunked our way through one locked door after another into the heart of the Dutch prison.

When celebrities of this magnitude (and reputation) offer to help carry your speakers you don’t tend to refuse. Mind you, they couldn’t carry them very far as they would have to traverse about a dozen high security and very much ‘locked’ doors to get back out to our truck. However; all in all they appeared to enjoy our set and they let us live.

My next prison experience was in a high security prison in Bristol. This in itself would have been fairly uneventful apart from having cast an eye over the audience I clapped eyes on an old friend from school. Sadly I couldn’t stop my brain from persuading my mouth to blurt out “What the hell are you doing here?” ‘Not an awful lot’ would have been a pertinent reply. Either way, it was a bit blunt and NOT the done thing to do.

Mind you this paled into insignificance when the warder who ushered me into the main gates stopped me and encouraged me to ‘look up’ As I stared upwards towards an old trap door I enquired if this was the entrance way to a clock tower or something “Not exactly” was the reply. It was then that I realised that I was staring at the ‘Long Drop’……around the time of my birth the last of those condemned men fell through that same door to dance their final waltz…….it didn’t put me in the mood for a rock & roll session I can tell you.

The most frightening experience was playing at a remand centre in Norfolk. This place had a reputation for being where they incarcerated the particularly nasty whilst they awaited trial for their heinous crimes.

As I was led quaking in my boots to the stage, alone I might add, no band mates were stupid enough to accompany me on this particular gig and I was doing this one on my own, I was informed, again by a warder (I was beginning to see why they were affectionately called ‘screws’ by the cliental as this what they do with your mind) that the group of prisoners I was about to play to were on a final warning. They had rioted during the concert the week before and if they did it again this was the end of their concert nights and I would be their last concert.

I do not have to remind any of you that fear has its own brand of smell…..and the smell was strong in this one I can tell you. I think the whole stage smelt like a freshly opened packet of dry roasted peanuts.

Anyway, they let me live on that occasion and a good time was had by all.

I played in many more ‘lock ups’ on many occasions over the years, and they all became rather common place after a while. However; the one that still makes me chuckle was one of my last gigs at an open prison in Gloucestershire.

Firstly on arrival we discovered a cart load of prisoners eager to help, and who were….shall we say ‘as the newt’ and secondly the man that was to be our liaison for the event was a convicted murderer who kept asking me for my telephone number for future events.

The answer to the mystery of the ‘half cut’ enlisted roadies was that being an open prison they had been allowed to help at a Christmas party at an old people’s home. I’m not sure how much Christmas cheer the elderly party goers had got to drink as this lot had really had a skin full. Not what we were expecting.

However; my lasting memory came from the fact that our guitarist had nearly taken one of his fingers off with a Stanley knife a few days before and as he began playing the stitches gave way spraying his bright orange guitar with blood. With that he launched into ‘Jailhouse rock’ by Elvis (bearing in mind we were in a prison it perhaps was in bad taste).

The men went mad…in a very good way.

Talk about rock & roll…..a guitarist drench in blood and sweat, the whole band ‘giving it some’ to Jailhouse rock and the prisoners rocking and rolling like the embodiment of the song itself….”I went to a party at the County Jail…”.

I felt like I was in the final moments of the Blue’s Brothers.

If you ever get the chance to play in a prison just go for it…just don’t ask the guys what they are in for….it’s rude, and they might take offence….…Doh!