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.