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.