Friday, 19 December 2008

The Unicorn gig

We are asked to be at the Unicorn pub for 6pm to soundcheck. We arrive at 7:15. This is largely because some of us have jobs to leave and/or children to deal with, so we couldn't possibly get there by 6. Experience tells us though that 7:15 will be just fine.

And it is. No-one has started soundchecking by the time we arrive. There's a band on stage setting up, but that's as far as they have got. There is supposed to be 4 acts playing. And when a third band arrives at 8-ish, it becomes clear that we are a band down. This is good news. Less panic. More calm. Longer set?

The booker clearly doesn't give a shit about the bands being well matched 'cos we got a 30-something grunge band headlining, then us - a 40-something English indie/rock band, and a teens to 20-something Strokes/ArcticMonkeys/Franz Ferdinand-sounding-band, opening.

The soundcheck is the usual thing. The room has a tall ceiling so the sound is echoey and muddled. The venue has a vocal PA which is fine cos the amps and the drums are loud enough without miking. We just have to watch our amp volumes a bit. But not as much as my guitarst does - more later.

We follow the youngsters, who have brought nobody. We bring in the most people - 8. There are a few bar-flies, the other band members and a mad bloke that looks like an extra from a street scene in Merlin, collecting the dregs of people's drinks in a jug and pouring himself pints of it all night long, to make up the numbers though.

We play well enough. The area in front of the stage, which could do with about 100 people in it, is empty except for two shadowy figures at the back. The audience remain at the bar beyond. The room is great to sing in, so I enjoy that and my guitar stays in tune, which is always a bonus 'cos I can move quickly from toilet flush end to intro, avoiding uncomfortable silences in the room as I tune up.

We make two noticeable cock-ups but apart from this we play well and are firing on all cylinders. Word on the floor post-gig is that the last 3 songs sound the best. Two of these are new.

I come home depressed though, because of my guitarist His guitar volume and sound has been so inconsistant of late and tonight it is very... too quiet. This is particularly noticeable when he is soloing. IAnd I couldn't tell you how well he played, 'cos I couldn't hear him. I fail to understand how he fails to notice this.

I realise that I have to have a word with him because it's not the first time this has happened. To be fair to him, it mostly happens at rehearsal where after a set or so, he gets his levels right. Tonight, though, we don't have time to wait for him to get it right.

I still feel grumpy when I get up this morning. I ring him today and tell him he must sort it out 'cos he's letting the side down. I don't like doing it but I am often too forgiving and tolerant of his shortcomings. He is suitably apologetic but has a few technicial explanations hwich are too complicate to comprehend. It should be this complicated. I tell him that I don't care about thee details but that it must be resolved.

I truly appreciate my 3 mates, my wife and her 2 mates, and my guitarist's mates coming out. But you have to wonder, was it worth it? What was that gig for? Who is it for? On one hand I enjoyed it, on the other, I could have done without it. You rehearse and you still make mistakes. The guitarist rehearses and performs with the same amp and still can't get his own sound right.

You go to bed. You can't sleep. You wake up in a mood. You write blog to get it off your chest.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

77 minus 70

It's my band's last gig of the year tomorrow night. At the Unicorn on Camden Road. It's free entry if you're around? This is where our new line-up had it's first outing back in December 2007.

That makes a grand total of....
....7 gigs, this year.
That's right, 7.
Not 77, but 77 minus 70.
That's one gig every seven weeks or so?
Is that enough?
Not really
So what you gonna do about it?

Well, we don't just need more gigs, we need better gigs too. I need to crack on with the idea that inspired the Rock-Til-You-Drop site and that is facilitating older musicians joining forces and playing gigs together. This will help maximise attendence. These events can also double as social networking occasions for mature musicians. This will be my New Year resolution. This is my mission for 2009. You read it here.

I have a few friends coming tomorrow night. The loyal few. Maybe they'll be ten or twelve of them. But what happened to the days when you could get thirty or forty people out? Here lies one of the main problems with gigging as a mature musician.

The band got up to speed last night in rehearsal and we've finally got round to including three or four of the newer songs. Thank fuck for that. After two run-throughs we we're firing on all cylinders. We don't get a warm-up tomorrow night, though.

The wife is working late but is coming to the gig. She is bringing some mates too, which is good. I have to let the babysitter in at 6pm. At which point, I have to dash across Camden with my guitar, my 100w Marshall combi and my kit-bag. I put my amp on a trolley and my guitar on my back. Soundcheck is 6:30 - if you believe it?

I shall let you know how the gig goes.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

I want my habit back

"Songs don't tend to come to you if there's no outlet for them. Because I couldn't get any records out, songs would occasionally come but I knew as soon as we had a contract the floodgates would open". Here, here Joe. Joe Strummer that is, on the voice over for Julian Temple's bio-pic 'The Future is Unwritten'

This sums up how I feel about songwriting. I miss the compulsion I had for it immensely. I want it back. But there is not the 'outlet' so the habit, in thrall to the necessity, is broken.

I wrote songs compulsively from about 15 years of age until my early 30s. I have an archive box full of A6 size note books and hundreds of songs to show for those years. But as soon as the gigs became fewer and further between and the sets of no more than 40 minutes in length, so the need for new material greatly decreased.

I am lucky because I was able to turn my creativity to making paintings. I have done this for the last 5 years, but it is not the same. Not for me. To be honest, I'd rather be under contract to deliver a series of albums. Then I could rekindle the compulsion.

But would I have anything interesting to say? (Of course I would!) Is my best work behind me? Should I continue to play the best of my back-catalogue 'cos no bugger (apart from a few friends) would know? And who'd care if they found out that at 41, I was singing a song I had written at 21? Noel gets away with it.

Noel Gallagher (41), in his Guardian Magazine interview with Simon Hattenstone, this weekend, talks about writing songs post-Wonderwall and Don't Look Back in Anger and how this was a time when he was simply "putting out records for the sake of it". This must be a creatively challenging time for successful musicans. You get your 3-5 years at the top and then, apart from the die-hards, people stop caring about what you have to say. You are now rich and out of touch with the people that you touched on the way up. If you are Noel Gallagher, you are also 41. You are married. You are a father. You want to be a responsible one. So there goes your edge. Right?

Well, not necessarily. Because there are mature singers and musicians that creatively appear to make a seamless transition into maturity and settling down. They do this, I think, by dealing with it in their lyrics. And with a less-fickle audience, who continue to be interested in what they have to say. They aren't attempting to sing to the youth. Instead their audience can relate to their songs about the challenges of middle-age. Because there is, of course, still an angst, some anger and fear associated with middle age. I'm thinking of someone like Julian Cope. He managed the transition. I don't know about his latest stuff but in the mid-90s he was singing about his wife and children. He and his music never lost their edge.

Unlike, Julian Cope I'm not making a living from my music. Music slipped a few places from the number one slot it was at for so many years. Like most married men with children, my time is more precious than ever. I do miss the days when all I did, all I wanted or needed to do with a passion was write songs. But writing and thinking about all this has got me to thinking that I'd like to attempt ot focus my creative attention on some songwriting again for a while. In the evenings, when I'm not painting. Regardless of the lack of outlet for new material. Besides, that's just making excuses, right? I could always go and play new songs at open-mic nights, anyway, couldn't I?

So, I'm off to write a song about the fall an institution close to my heart, Woolworths.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

This is "no time to be 21".

Now, something has struck me in the process of putting the Rock-Til-You-Drop website together, and that is how poorly, in general, mature bands present themselves photographically. I know my band is definitely guilty of not putting enough effort into its visual presentation. Why is that we don't spend the time and money on a decent band photograph? Has a self-consciousness about our ageing appearance killed off all our rock-vanity? Ot is it simply the logistics of arranging a photo shoot? ‘Cos as you know, these days, it’s hard enough to arrange a rehearsal that the whole band can make. I’m sure though that having a decent group photograph was once essential. Shouldn’t it still be?

Most of us are either greying or grey haired, balding or bald and some of us are paunchy or simply overweight. But so are a lot of these guys and gals pictured below. (Have a quick look at the photos below and then scroll back)

While they have their status as rock legends and many other advantages over us, you could say that we have one advantage over them, and that is, that no-one is likely to be comparing us with our younger selves.

Here are a few things that I think we should consider about how we look in photographs. Forgive me if I come on like an avuncular rock-version of Trinny or Suzannah. I just wanna spark some discussion around the subject.

I think it is best that we don’t try to look 21. This will do us no favours and more likely make us a laughing stock and perpetuate prejudice. Now, if you are blessed with a physique like Mick Jagger or Iggy Pop and have managed to remain paunchless, and/or you have a headful of hair, and/or play in a heavy metal band, then maybe you can get away with wearing a t-shirt in photographs, but generally these don’t flatter the ageing rocker. Personally, I would also avoid T-shirts bearing slogans as this does tend to appear somewhat immature. I think T-shirts are more acceptable in a live situation but in general, button-down shirts look more mature. As do suits and suit jackets with jeans. We’re never gonna fool anybody about our age, so we should accept, and embrace it.

Think about your image. Try and imagine that Annie Leibovitz was photographing you; how would you like to be portrayed? I think people accept, admire, even respect, the eccentric or mad uncle look; I’m thinking about Nick Cave, below, as an example, his hair-line is receding, and he dyes his hair, but he still has a distinct image – handle bar moustache or not - and there’s a maturity about his image too. This is largely because he avoids T-shirts and jeans.

Wearing dark colours seems to help cover the less flattering bits and pieces too. Notice that most of these bands below are wearing black – this is not a coincidence.

Try a hat. Hats are a useful part of the mature musician’s wardrobe; see Neil Young and Bob Dylan, below. Take The Edge for example, he’s obviously as bald as a coot and has been for years. So rather cleverly he has kept a woolly hat on for years to perpetuate a more youthful image – grey goatee or not.

Studio or indoor shoots seem to work better than location photographs, which tend to call for full-body shots. These are less flattering of the mature musician. On the other hand, I’m sure they are more expensive. See the location photograph of the Stranglers (right at the bottom) which, I think you’ll agree is best avoided. Live shots can work, but they have to be taken professionally to make the grade. There are a few good ones on this site.

And, one last thought: is a record sleeve or a graphic a cop out? Maybe not, if you are not confident of your appearance.

So, if we are gonna convince the general public that we are worth listening to and coming to watch, shouldn’t we show them that we care about our image too? Whether the issue is time or money, or lack of confidence, I don’t think we should give up on trying to look like rock musicians, as opposed to IT workers or builders.

I welcome your thoughts.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

20 sung and 20 unsung classics

I went to see the Arctic Monkeys last night.

Not really. I went to see The Stranglers last night. I would have liked to have seen the Arctic Monkeys but a) they’re not playing and b) had they been, I wouldn’t stand a chance of getting a ticket, unless I began non-stop calling Ticketmaster from 8:55am on the day tickets went on sale.

No, a friend of mine had some free tickets to see The Stranglers at Shepherd’s Bush Empire and the friendly and sociable thing to do was of course to accept the offer of one. I’ve seen them live a few times now over the years. On the first occasion Golden Brown was in the top ten. I think it was 1982? I think it was number two in the charts at the time? Anyway, I was at secondary school, for sure, and it was one of the first gigs, if not the first gig, I ever went to. Either that or the Kinks? Both were at the Guildford Civic Hall.

I love the Stranglers but I pretty much draw a line at the end of side two of La Folie. Beyond that I liked the odd song; I feel the same about Always the Sun as I do about Avalon by Roxy Music. I like it mostly out of loyalty. I am also uncomfortable about the idea of seeing them without Hugh Cornwell. This is the main reason that I wouldn’t pay to see The Stranglers these days. To me, it would be like seeing Queen without Freddie Mercury or dare I say it, Led Zeppelin without Robert Plant 'cos yes, I hear from my news-hungry wife that Page, Jones and Bonham Jnr are actually considering embarking on a tour without Percy).

Clearly, the moshing 40-somethings in front of the stage, indeed the majority of the audience last night, couldn’t have cared less about Mr Cornwell’s absence. I know even stubborn old me began to feel just a bit petty, especially once I found myself singing along to hit after hit. I enjoyed it after all. I got over my prejudice. Temporarily at least, I forgot about missing Cornwell’s tones and presence and wit. It was entertaining. There were 'hits' (I use the term relatively) that I hadn’t anticipated too like Tank and their Doors-like cover of Walk on By; both sent shivers down my spine. This is a sure sign of my nostalgic pleasure.

Now, The Stranglers’ last hit was in 1990 and was a cover version of 96 Tears which reached number 17 in the charts (remember The Charts?). Two years earlier they scored their second biggest hit with a cover of All Day and All of the Night, which reached number 7, but that was it for the Stranglers’ hit machine. It ran out of pop-petrol. 1990 was also the year that Hugh Cornwell went off to pursue a solo career. He hasn’t managed another hit either. He hardly needs one though; bearing in mind he still reaps the rewards of the Stranglers continuing to tour his songs.

The mid to late 80s we’re obviously a difficult time for the Stranglers. They were after all a dire time for music generally. The Stranglers were looking for a new post-Golden Brown identity, they needed to prove they had longevity. Always The Sun got them some recognition in the US but wasn't big in the UK. The hits during this period were few and far between. Hugh Cornwell clearly didn’t believe in their longevity, not in a creative respect anyway. I couldn’t tell you if the songs were still any good. I had moved on to other things. It’s not unusual though, in fact you could say it’s common for bands to eventually lose their hit-making ability, facility and credentials. For some, success itself, takes the edge off the words and music. Others simply run out of ideas. The Stranglers had a good run of twelve years or so. They went from pub-rockers to near-chart-toppers and managed to pull off a 7/8 time-signature and a song about heroin in the same hit record, Golden Brown – I hear it now mostly when I’m shopping at my Sainsburys Local. I don’t think they know about the subject matter.

Now if the Stranglers hadn’t have gotten so famous, would they still have been as prolific? Would they still have written Golden Brown and Always the Sun? Let’s say they never made it far enough out of Guildford. Or that they bubbled under but never quite made it. Would they have matured out of their punk sound without chart success and gone on to improve their songwriting without it too? Would they still have a hit or two up their sleeve? Would they still be going? Is there a Stranglers out there, that didn’t make it and who still have a wealth of great songs in a box in an attic somewhere? I think there must be.

But would anyone be interested? Well, a good song is a good song. It is timeless, isn’t it? It just needs the right promotion. Wouldn’t it be great to put a CD-compilation together of lost gems. Great obscure moments in local rock history. 20 Unsung Classics, I’d call it. I’m sure they’re still being played out there on old tape-cassettes. I know, ‘cos I have a demo by a band called the Contours from Guildford, which dates back to the New Wave era. I still put it on from time to time ‘cos I like the songs. The sound qulaity isn't great but there’s a couple of really good songs on it.

If you’ve got a lost gem, a hit that should have been, drop me a line at I'd love to hear it, and about it.

Monday, 10 November 2008

How old is not young?

Or how young is not old? However you care to pose it, the point is there comes a time when you stop being a young band. Are you then simply: a band, before you make the final step to becoming a mature or an old band? And does it matter?

Well, if you still have ambitions to 'make it' ("whatever that means?" -thanks young Mr Turner), then it does. Record companies tend to only really be interested in signing up-and-coming young bands. Sure, occasionally a 30-something unknown gets a deal, often it's a singer/songwriter-type; the first that come to mind are BabyBird and Seasick Steve - I'm sure there are more. But generally speaking they want young, attractive, edgey and rebellious types; sexy, moody, unattached, irresponsible, unpredictable. They want headline-makers not home-makers.

Being a budding rock-star myself, I know I was not pleased about turning 30. I didn't want a party or to party. I didn't feel like celebrating. It felt like the beginning of the end. Okay, there were a few other factors that contributed to this negativity but the major one was the feeling that I was running out of time to realise my dream.

I am now 41 so I have had plenty of time to get over it, but have I gotten over it? For budding rock-stars like myself, turning thirty has this added stigma. One's chances of 'making it' have narrowed again. So what is one to do? Well, you have to keep on rocking because of course it's in your heart, it's what drives you, it is you. If you, like me, against your parents' and your Careers adviser's advice, sacrificed a university education and a conventional career path to stubbornly pursue a rock 'n' roll dream, you too will not be giving up easily. But slowly and surely it begins to sink in. You begin to realise the dream of commercial success is over. The dream is then kept alive, and success is achieved by maintaining the passion. Keeping the real you alive. And that is where a lot of us are at. Am I wrong?

One thing that has struck me about putting the Rock-Til-You-Drop website together is the lack of bands that have come forward to be included. This is probably because it takes a while to come to terms with the fact that you are indeed mature. Some never do. According to Bev who works at our rehearsal studios she has grown men weeping in front of her about coming to terms with getting old! Once a budding rock-star who hasn't realised his dream turns 30, I think he spends most of the next ten years letting himself down as gently as possible from the dizzy heights of his rock 'n' roll dream. Or was that just me?

Famous or not, a lot of musicians and bands make some of their best music in their 30s. They play and perform with more confidence and they have learnt more about the recording process and how to craft a good song. I know I wrote some of my best songs in my early 30s. They don't need revamping or rewiting, they're not embarassing to sing or naively written; there's nothing immature about them. So if this theory is correct, there should be a lot of very good unknown bands in their 30s, even 40s, out there. If you feel you are one of them, please get in touch.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

How to lose twenty years

I'm revamping another old song. I gotta stop this. This one, entitled Happy at Work was written retospectively about about a crush that a work-colleague had on me in my early-20s - twenty or so years ago. It was written around '95 and just after my band back then, 67, found itself without a deal again.

67's music was pretty heavy in a US hardcore kind of way. We caught the 'grunge' wave of the early 90s. We had always been rocky but as our musical attention turned to the wave of US lo-fi, grunge and hardcore bands of the period, so our sound began to gain in dynamic, angst and feedback. I began to push my voice too, inspired by Black Francis and Kurt Cobain and the like. However, I always retained the English accent - a cross between Hugh Cornwell and David Gedge, they would say. You can hear some of it on the player attached to my social network site.
By 94/95 British bands were making a resurgence. The likes of Blur, Suede, Oasis and Supergrass. We realised we had to change to survive. We changed the band's name to the more English-sounding Tea and drafted in another musician to stir things up a bit. He happened to be a saxophonist but he could have played the accordian - we didn't know what it was we wanted, we just wanted someone else. The sax worked well though, adding a touch of Roxy to our guitar noise and gradually the angst came out of the vocal and irony and wit took it's place.

We had already started falling out over money, money we hadn't even made yet and royalties we hadn't even receieved. Oh, and solo careers that weren't even possible.

67 had had a small deal and I had been very friendly with the record company staff. I think there was some jealousy about that and some feeling that I was in too much of a postion of power. This and the fact that certain people's opinions were being ignored. That kind of thing. We were still young and arrogant and just a little angry. We were drinking a lot too. Anyway, the cracks were showing long befor 67 became Tea, so didn't last long. It ended in a dramatic and comical post-gig scenario involving the drummer's wife, a flying drumstick and a balaclava. Think: "It's your fucking wife! She's not my wife! Whatever fuck she is, alright..."

We had some good songs though. A strong and cohesive set which included a stonking cover of Teardrop Explodes' Reward. Some of these songs have lasted to be played more recently in Pocket Rocket's set.

Happy at Work has been on my mind for a while as a possible revamp. It's quirky and very English. I wrote it about the time I was doing temporary clerical work for BT. I'd got this job at the job centre to get off the dole for a while. I worked for a couple of years for them on temporary contracts and finally got let go for, let's just say, doing something that I shouldn't have. I wrote it form the perspective of an older woman at my work who had a crush on me. The irony is that now, I am her age. I feel this irony when I sing the line: "We kissed and I lost twenty years". At the time she at 40-ish could afford to lose twenty years, me being 24-ish, could not. Now, of course, I can.

This woman was just a bit tarty, short and skinny with long black hair. Small tits, cat-like eyes. We snogged a few times and soon she was really after me. Stroking my leg in the office. Making eyes at me. Buying me stuff. The problem was her husband was a bit of a crook by all accounts. I remember she came in one day with a shiner, so I knew not to take our 'encounters' too far. I think I even met him at one point. So she's so into me that one night she comes to see my band play at the Rock Garden and she buys a black biker jacket to try to impress me. Unfortunatley, I'm too busy with my friends and self-absorbed to notice and so I upset her by not appearing to even care. I didn't mind the occasional snog but I certainly wasn't gonna go home with her as she had suggested when her husband was away.

Happy at Work is unusual in that it doesn't really have a chorus. It has a repeated guitar chord phrase that punctuates the verses. When it was written it had alot of these; too many. They upset the momentum of the song so I've taken a few out. It was written in A and half way through changed to E. I have put the whole song in D which enables me to sing the early verses in a lower register and to belt out the last verses in the higher one. This has the same effect and is smoother that the original key change.

Bearing in mind that we don't get to play more than a thirty minute set these days every 6-8 weeks, it's gonna be a while before this song will make the set, if it ever does. Still, in the process of revamping Happy at Work and revisiting those times, I did momentarily enjoy losing twenty years myself. All that hair. All that beer. All that testosterone.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

No Sleep 'til Christmas

So the promoter I mentioned in my last blog has responded to the email that I sent earlier today and has offered us a gig in late December. So there you go. A gig before Christmas. And guess what? It's another thirty minute set!


A gig-less band is no band at all

So my band are without a gig on the cards again. I hate that. Who is responsible for this? Well, we (the band's four members) all are, or should be. Some of us do more than others to get gigs. What I mean to say is some of us do something and others do nothing. I have to admit that I have been guilty of not doing too much gig-getting lately. This is because our drummer who works in advertising has managed to arrange the last couple of gigs through advertising industry events.

So the ball's in my court. Where to play next, I wonder? Probably no chance of a gig before Christmas now? The promoter whose baby I carelessly woke up in the process of trying to book a gig recently has given me the name of someone else to contact for a booking at his boozer.

I sent this contact an email yesterday but I haven't had a response to it yet. Fair enough, they're probably very busy. So I go to their website again to find a telephone number; Can I find a telephone number? No I can't. So I decide to send them another message through their myspace page. I hate myspace. What an effing mess. A cluttered, restless, headache-inducing nightmare. And do you think I can remember my password? I spend the next ten minutes trying to sort my password out. Eventually, I sort it out and get another email off to them.

I also call UpAllNight. They don't have the Spice of Life anymore which is okay 'cos it's an effing nightmare to load your gear in and out of. I did like the space though. And the soundman, John. The location for support was good, too. Anyhow, they now put on gigs at the Albany at Great Portland Street and at Tommy Flynns in Camden. Both these involve nights on the bill with four other bands and playing a thirty minute set. Probably with a bunch of young bands. Kids young enough to be my own. So here we go again. Another thirty minutes in a blue moon.

Anyway, sods-law, Alex is not there today when I call so I'm asked to call tomorrow.

I will keep you posted.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Forty minutes in a blue moon, Part two: Forty becomes thirty.

We arrive at the club Sin at 5:30pm. It is a sprawling rabbit warren of a club hidden away behind, underneath and above a row of shops on Charing Cross Road. We don't have to wait long to soundcheck but we do have to do it without our bass player who can't make it down in time. The soundman is stressed probably 'cos he's running behind schedule. The soundcheck is brief but satisfactory. I try not to worry too much about soundchecks anyway 'cos the sound you get at them often bears no resemblance to the one you hear during performance. It's just good to get a feel for the stage size and layout though, as well as arrange ourselves and our amps and set volume levels and stuff.

We are due to play at 9pm. We are the warm-up act before a 'battle of the bands' style competition, that I'm pleased we're not a part of. We are informed that we're gonna get thirty minutes on stage and not the forty that we had been promised. No surprise there.

The room we're in is long with the stage at one end and a bar down the left hand side as you walk in at the other end. There is a dance floor in front of the stage. This remains empty throughout our performance. We take to the stage with bass player in place and we start our set. The sound is good on stage, including the vocals. There's very little coming through the fold-backs but the amps are loud enough and well-positioned on stage so I get a good mix where I'm standing, at least. The lighting is a bit more of a problem for me 'cos I soon realise that I can't clearly see the dots on my fretboard. As I'm playing the first song I'm distracted by solving this little problem. I try standing at various angles until the light catches the top of my fretboard. I can't find a good position so I'm forced to lift the neck of the guitar into the light for certain chord changes.

The crowd of fifty or so people are congregated on the other side of the dance-floor and are too busy talking to even notice us, let alone applaud us. This doesn't disconcert us though, it does the opposite. We play with more and more vigour and I raise the vocal dynamic a notch or two to try and interupt conversation. This is to no avail but I enjoy the process anyway. In the early part of the set we make a few sarcastic remarks about their deaf-ears but then drop these in favour of a more magnanimous gratitude.

We are all veterans of this type of gig. Most bands on the way up or down play them. This particular crowd is made up of advertising industry-types in their twenties, maybe early-thirties. They aren't here to see us. They are here to get drunk and hang out with their colleagues. You can be disheartened by this experience or turn the negative into a postive. I mean, these days (you should understand what I mean by this expression by now) it's not often that we get to play through a top quality PA on stage like this. So we just enjoy ourselves. It used to wind me up. But maybe that's what maturity does to you. You stop giving a damn what people think and even whether they listen. It becomes about being able to make music. It's about the opportunity. The night out, the boys-night-out-ness of it. The camaraderie associated with being in a band. It about perpetuating the feelings you used to get as a teenager when playing music on stage. It's keeping the dream alive; and the older I get, the more tightly I want to cling to that dream.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Forty minutes in a blue moon

Tomorrow, my band, Pocket Rocket, is playing a gig. It's at the club Sin in London's west end. I mention the venue first 'cos the not-so-rock 'n' roll aspect of it is that we are booked to play an annual fundraising event for the National Advertising Benevolent Society. They call it Nabstock. My feeling is that it's a gig, isn't it? We only play every 6-8 weeks and these days (ie: in our middle age), we would rather play gigs like this because they come with a guaranteed audience mostly under the influence of copius amounts of alcohol and therefore likely to dance to virtually anything. This is preferable to an audience comprising a handful of people we know, a few members of other bands on the bill plus a man and his dog at the Bull & Gate or one of the other toilet-scene London venues. I do miss 'em, really.

Our drummer has recently had an operation on his knee, following an injury sustained during weight-training. As a result of cutting the healing process a bit fine we are unable to do our usual full band rehearsal a couple of nights before. I think we'll be alright though. Our set tomorrow night is to be forty minutes long. We have a safe forty minute set; and a not so safe sixty minute one, which we won't have to struggle through, so that's good. Sixty minutes is almost too long for an unknown band anyway, I reckon.

Our bass player can't make rehearsal 'cos he's waiting in for his wife to come home from work to relieve him of parental duties. So that leaves me and our guitarist. We decide to get together anyway but instead of going all the way to the rehearsal room in Waterloo, I go over to his place, bring him some nuts 'n' raisins and orange juice (protein and vitamins) for him to consume on day of the gig and we go over the set and refresh our memories - It's been a couple of weeks since we last rehearsed as a full band.

Tomorrow night backline is (mostly) being provided; I have to bring a second guitar amp which is a pain though. Sound check is at 5pm. We're on at 9pm.

These are the facts. Now we can begin the hypothesising about how the gig will go? The less you play, the less sure you can be about how the gig will go and how well you will play on the night. It's a one-off. It's a lottery with chance related to factors such as the soundman, equipment, lighting, stage, audience, technical problems, mood, alcohol, clothes, nerves etc etc.

As most of my musician-readers will know, it is not about the performances of the individual members of the group so much as about the overall sound and tightness of the band. This means that you can play well (as a whole) and have a shit gig (personally). At our last gig, as a whole, we played well. Post-performance though, opinions of the show differed. I, for instance, thought I sang well but played guitar like a muppet, or at least a beginner. I was torn by my performance. I was loving singing 'cos the PA was so good - a good on-stage vocal sound, nice room acoustics - so I sang my little heart out. I just couldn't get into the swing of my guitar playing. I was having tuning problems, which made me panicky and self-conscious about my intros. As a result, I dropped out alot of the verse guitar parts coming back in for bridges or choruses which always heightens the dynamics but was intermittent enough to further stifle my swing.

A sound-desk recording confirmed how I felt abou the gig. My guitar was sort of out of tune in parts. Not too bad but just enough to bother me. And my singing was spot on. Really strong and clear.

So, we'll see. Another forty minutes in a blue moon. Watch this space for my post-gig analysis.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Call me, just don't wake the baby

I was effing peed off yesterday after making a call to a promoter who I am chasing for a gig booking. We played a successful show at the venue he manages a year ago so the gig's on the cards; I'd just like to finalise a date. I have called this guy numerous times and on each occasion he is too busy to deal with it. Fine, he's busy, and sounds just a little stressed, so I agree to call again each time.

Yesterday, I call and he answers:
"Who's this?"
"It's Toby from Pocket Rocket", I say
"Nice timing mate", he replies, "you just woke up my baby... I can't speak now, I shouldn't have answered the phone...
"I'm sorry", I say, "I'll give you a call another time".

So effing rude. Too right you shouldn't have anwered the effing phone.
I was peed off at myself for being so apologetic. I hate that about me. I know dealing with a baby is stressful, I've been there. So why is it sleeping by the landline phone?

This testing and frustrating process of trying to get a gig, gives me day-mares me of the times, in the late-80s, that we had to go out to the telephone box at the end of the road in all weathers to call promoters. After having queued for ages to get into the phone box, naturally the line was engaged or he wasn't there or he had a pay-to-play policy (which we didn't agree with because we simply couldn't afford to do it) so all our efforts were in vein.

As my late-grandmother used to say, "Never give up". So I bloody won't.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

The song don't necessarily remain the same

I have been writing songs since I was 14 or 15. I started writing lyrics before I could play guitar. Mostly about the end of the world.

It was the early 1980s and new tensions between the US and Russia inspired the so-called Second Cold War and resumed talk of nuclear war. The threat seemed very real. I was fascinated. Not by the politics but by the idea of Armageddon and a post-apocalypse planet Earth. I even bought my Dad a copy of a book called the Fate of the Earth for his birthday. He didn’t read it. I did. Well, not all of it because it went on a bit. I was particularly attracted to the idea of being the only remaining human being after the apocalypse; I had a song called Adam and Eve Mark II which I don’t need to explain to you.

Once I could play guitar, writing songs became a more complex process. But I loved it. I started keeping a notebook of song words and ideas. Once I had finished a song I would neatly write it all out and proudly look it. Then I would make some scribbled changes; and have to write it all out neatly again.

I quickly got to the point that I always had a song on the go in my head. At about 20, having moved to London with my band then called 1967, the necessity to write songs increased. We played gigs more often and hearing so much new music we changed musical styles and hairstyles with some frequency.

As the songwriter I could stay one step ahead of the band but learned quickly to deal with the frustration caused by the speed with which I was able to deliver new songs for arrangement and inclusion in the set. The set, once rehearsed, like a football team on a winning streak, didn’t need changing too often. Songs waited patiently on the bench, some never ever getting a game.
For the next twelve years or so, I wrote constantly. I always had a few song ideas on the go at any one time. Sometimes songs would take weeks or months to complete. Other times, I would write them in one sitting in a flash of inspiration, often on the way home from a night on the tiles. In the back of my mind though I think I was aware that I had to strike while the iron was hot. This prolific output might not last forever. The angst would turn to acceptance and grumpiness, the unrequited love would hopefully one day be requited and the self-indulgence would ultimately become time spent alone at home.

By my early thirties I started to write less. I was less inspired to write songs. I could make excuses. So I will. The band was playing less often so there wasn’t such a need for new material. I was settling down. I got married. We had a kid. And I wasn’t going out half as much. End of excuses.

My interests turned back to art, which I had pretty much renounced in favour of rock ‘n’ roll at 19. With the encouragement of my wife I returned to art school. I’ll get to the point in a minute.
The point is, earlier this year with a new band in place, I began to feel the need for new songs. I wrote a few. And I was in the lucky position of having a back-catalogue that I could cherry pick the best bits of. So one day I was listening to some old rehearsal recordings, made around 1990/91 and there was a group of songs which comprised our set at the time that I thought were really strong. None of these songs made it to the recording stage nor did they survive long
enough to make the set that we were playing when as 67 we got signed in 1993.

I figured these songs might be worth dusting down and playing they were so strong. The problem was that I felt uncomfortable about their lyrical content. Now I wrote these songs. But I obviously wrote them with a major twenty-something’s hard-on and after listening to too much Led Zeppelin. They were the stuff of cock-rock. I didn’t feel comfortable singing this kind of stuff. So I decided to try rewriting the lyrics to one of them. After playing with various ideas for weeks and feeling like I was getting nowhere, I felt inspired by the mood my wife was in on returning from seeing her family in California. She had jet-lag, which she treats by sleeping for a week and was feeling just a little blue about being back in miserable grey old England. So I wrote it about this. Bright young California vs. the dull old England; careful to make it clear this was how she was feeling not me. I would never be so unpatriotic.

It was funny because my bass player, who had played on the original song, then entitled Cleopatra, couldn’t remember the song or the bass line for the life of him - it was nearly twenty years since he had last played it – so I taught him to play his own bass line. I halved the length of the original verses and a new three and half minute pop song was born. Its new title is less concise: Post-California English Winter Blues. For a song that was written 20 years ago, it’s got quite a contemporary, White Stripesy sound. It’s now our set opener.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

A right knee's up (for at least ten days)

Our drummer injured his right knee recently pushing an excessive weight with his feet in the gymnasium. On Friday he had to have an operation to fix it. He has been advised to spend the next two weeks combining rest and physiotherapy to complete the healing process. The thing is we have a gig booked in about ten days. He is determined to recover in time. We have a rehearsal a couple of nights before the gig, which is at a club called Sin in the West End and is in aid of the National Advertising Benevolent Society. A bit odd, I know, but it's a gig and with a guaranteed audience who will be quite well-oiled by 8 or 9pm, I'm sure. I shall keep you posted about his progress.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

CD Shopping down Memory Lane

I needed some exercise yesterday and a break around lunch from working on this site, so I decided to cycle down to Fopp at Cambridge Circus to buy a replacement birthday present for my mate; turns out it was the second time I had chosen to give him the River Cottage book on Fish, which was a bit embarrassing. I love Fopp because I get a kick out of bargains - always have. Why pay eleven quid for a CD, when you can pay three? No doubt it stems from all those years as a musician on the dole in my twenties and shopping at Kwik Save with a tenner . Anyway, I love that section on the left as you enter Fopp, where all the CDs are three-quid. It’s a mixed bag but I usually find myself picking up an album that I already have on vinyl but that I don’t own on CD. Today’s CD-case in point, contains Script For A Jester’s Tear by Marillion. I know it’s not cool but I love that album. Forgotten Sons, the last track of six-lengthy songs on Script, gets me every time. Especially at the end when the kids are singing "a ring, a ring a roses (x3), we all fall down". I remember buying it from Woolworths in Godalming High Street and bringing it home to scrutinise and caress it in all its dark glossy gatefold beauty. Script reminds me of a time at secondary school when there had developed a split amongst the rapidly growing group of budding musicians (mostly guitarists - which caused its own problems). There were those who wanted to make pop music and those that didn’t. My passion for popular music was stoked on a mixture of punk rock and The Doors so, at that point, I opted out of the ‘pop’ group. I remember though at the time using Marillion’s then recent performance of Forgotten Sons on the Old Grey Whistle Test or Riverside or whatever, as proof that the dark theatre and drama of The Doors was still cool and could also bring us success without us having to sell out. What was I thinking? I now might as well admit that I also own their second album ‘Fugazi’ on vinyl. I just thank God that I never got into that too. I’m too frightened to listen to it now, in case I do like it. Ironically, and against the grain of my punk and psychedelic musical genesis (to use a prog-appropriate term), I was rescued from Marillion and Genesis et al, by a sudden youthful change of musical direction which transported me into a world of New Romanticism. How fickle we are in our youth, and confused. But more about that, and the copy of Gentlemen Take Polaroids that I also picked up, another time.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

The Sneaks at the Hope and Anchor

I wouldn’t normally go out at 9:30pm on a Tuesday night but my mate invited me out to see his work colleague’s band play last night at the Hope and Anchor in Islington. They are called the Sneaks. They are in their mid-twenties so they don't yet qualify for the 'Bands' page of this site but I feel I ought to be aware of what sort of noise young up-and-coming bands are making. I jump on my push-bike and I'm there in 15 minutes. When I arrive my mate introduces me to the singer who is from New Zealand. He seems very nice. He has a moustache and an 'I Love N Y' t-shirt on. He is waiting to go on at 10:30 at the top of the bill. It is quiet upstairs in the pub. The whole scene is very familiar to me. It reminds me of many a gig I’ve played in London. The empty pub upstairs, the cycle of bands and their fans, up and down the stairs, in and out of the live area. I think the The Falcon. The Dublin Castle. The Bull and Gate (incidentally, does anybody remember that Jon Fat Beast? I wonder what happened to him?) Now, I haven’t been to the Hope for a long time. I think the last time I was there, I was playing a gig. If my memory serves me, it was 1998 - if that was the year that Arsenal won the double? That Saturday night, anyway, the pubs and streets of Highbury and the surrounding area were heaving with drunken celebrating fans - and strewn with broken glass. There was an edgy atmosphere, too. I remember a guy crashing into the loos, his hand bleeding from being attacked by a pissed-up Gooner with a broken bottle . He was an Arsenal supporter too, just with a blue shirt on. Once we had played, I remember we got the hell out of there as quickly as possible. Anyway, I like the Hope because of its Punk history and very few of the old punk venues are still in use. It was of course where bands like the Stranglers and X-Ray Spex played back in mid to late seventies. The Stranglers’ video for Get a Grip was filmed at the Hope and this fact always distracts me when I’m downstairs. As usual then, I find myself trying to work out how the room has changed since then and whether the stage has actually been moved since the video was shot. I’m sure there’s someone out there who can enlighten me. If you were one of the Finchley Boys or at the Hope back then, maybe you can put my mind at rest? It must have been longer than I thought since I’d been to a gig like this, cos it's now £6 to get in. It's worth it though 'cos the band is entertaining and I like their stuff. Post-punk-art-rock. A lot of energy. Fuzz- bass driven songs with frantically strummed clean guitar and occasional synthesizer. Short and fast songs. Oddly arranged and at times shouty in the vein of Sebadoh, or someone Lo-fi like that. They remind me of early XTC too; quirky songs that frequently change time and speed. Aptly, they cover an early Sparks effort called Moustache. The singer has charisma and is funny. His schtick is a full-face motorcycle helmet that had been fitted with a microphone which allows him to travel the length of the tiny stage while singing. The band are sort of chaotic. The stage is a mess of wires and foot-pedals. They are confident. They are very signable. I start to feel slightly envious and nostalgic. I rewind to memories of record companies coming to gigs. Promising to bring their colleagues to the next show. Journalists reviewing our gigs. Those were the days! After the gig, the soundman sticks on the Ramones, which is fitting because there’s a New Yorky-ness to the Sneak’s brand of art-rock. In fact, after the gig their singer, James, informs me the band are going to New York to play in a few days (this is the second time I feel envious). So I hear a song from the Leave Home LP over the PA and I am transported back to Ken’s Records in Godalming High Street sometime in 1980. Most of these kids weren’t born by 1980. I then start to envy them the experience of plundering four decades of rock and pop’s back catalogue. Envy them hearing the Ramones for the first time. Roxy Music.... The Doors.... Fugazi...... Drink up, I say to myself. You’re leaving.