A String Quartet, You Say?

Simplicity should be, well, simple in the indie-pop game. I wonder why it isn’t.

I’ve recently been re-visiting some older recordings, primarily removing the samples (for that old chestnut, copyright), but also giving them a bit of a spring clean in preparation for up-loading to that there internet. I must admit, I do tend to throw the kitchen sink into my mixes – partly to cover up all my blemishes on my guitar playing but also to drown out my singing voice, which I’ve always dreaded hearing back.

As a result, the finished songs tend to sound either cluttered and noisy, as if someone has thrown a heap of biscuit tins into a row of metal dustbins or woolly and mushy, like the inside of a marshmallow factory after an explosion of pillow cases and candyfloss. Furthermore, my acoustic guitar playing is atrocious. I once prided myself on my rhythm playing; I could leap about on stage, a tall, willowy figure with more enthusiasm than ability and more nerve than dress sense without losing where I was in the song or my strum pattern.

In my earliest of early band days recording was efficient and rudimentary – marked boundaries set by (a) cost, (b) time (which was set by cost) and (c) the number of people in the band and their sole part – bass, drums, lead and rhythm guitar and the one vocal. In-house engineers high on dope and their own sense of self-importance often meant the results were poor to mediocre at best and poor to shambolic at worst. When you’re paying however many pounds an hour it was and three of those hours were spent miking up a hi-hat, (between natural and un-natural breaks), then it’s no surprise that the cruddy little tape you left the studio with, (along with your secondary-smoke filled lungs and doped-out heads), might have better been recorded at home on your little sister’s tape recorder.

These days, with LogicPro and MacBooks my head is swimming with ideas … how about a string quartet here or a flugelhorn quintet there? The trouble is, I have absolutely no musical training to justify these grandoise notions. You simply cannot replicate years of dedication, training, ability, talent and hard work with a click of a mouse and the selection of ‘Staccato Bass’ on the laptop. It was recently demonstrated to me, by way of a real, live Mellophone being used on one of my songs. I was in seventh heaven, (F or Eb seventh to be precise) …

I will never be a producer or arranger of note, that much is true. But as long as music continues to send those shivers up my spine the way the Mellophone player did then I will continue on my merry way …

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excerpt from “Paul King Stole My Haircut” #2

Why don’t we speak to whatsizname?

We’d first bumped into Withnail in WaxWerks, the local independent record shop. We’d noticed him expertly rifling through the latest Happy Hardcore and Ibiza twelve inches, pulling out every third or fourth copy for a brief scan of the title then discarding it back into place equally as deftly. I squinted through half-open eyes, wondering if it might actually be Richard E. Grant himself flicking record sleeves with the same frantic finger speed as a court stenographer. Tall, with collar length, wavy dark hair swept back over a high forehead, he wore tatty grey overcoat, unbuttoned to reveal army green combat shorts, brown sandals, and an orange tee shirt emblazoned with Stereolab on the chest. Wound around his wrists were a variety of nightclub and festival straps and he had a battered CD Walkman protruding out of his coat pocket, earphones dangling by his side.

Millie had casually strolled up to the section next to Dance – 80’s re-mixes – and was scrutinizing a tatty copy of Duran Duran’s ‘night version’ of Planet Earth. It might have been the record or it may have been Millie’s presence but something distracted Withnail from his rummaging.

‘Fabulous mix that,’ he said, wagging a bony finger at the sleeve. ‘Oh, and good for Linn Drum samples.’

‘Pardon?’ said Millie, good for what?’

‘Linn Drum samples,’ he repeated.

‘You know, Millie,’ I butted in. ‘Synth drums. As heard on every record made in the 80’s.’

‘And a few made by Hair Metal bands in the 90’s too!’ added the tall stranger.

Millie laughed and nodded in agreement.

‘I’m sorry,’ the man said, ‘I didn’t introduce myself. My name’s Michael. Michael Wardle but people round here refer to me as Withnail. Can’t think why?’

I looked into his haunted, ghostly eyes and new he was speaking the truth. He really couldn’t fathom it out. Unlike people who desperately tried to act or dress like someone famous, this Withnail character just dressed as he did because presumably that’s how he ended up looking when he rolled out of bed and into his clothes.

‘Are you two musicians?’ he continued. ‘You come across like you are, the young lady here in particular.’

Millie was naturally flattered and to be honest I wasn’t bothered that much by his preference to her. After all, she was the face of the band as well as the voice. I just plonked away on keyboards and tried not to be resentful of the looks male members of our audience were giving my girlfriend.

‘We are, as it happens,’ she replied. ‘Well, trying to be. We’ve never been paid yet.’

‘Ah, I thought so,’ smirked Withnail, tapping his nose. ‘You’ve got a good look, you know. Got any demos?’

‘Lesson number one,’ beamed Millie, delving into her bag. ‘Always carry a demo.’

‘Yep,’ I added. ‘You never know who you might meet?’

‘Very true,’ Withnail nodded, wisely. ‘After all, I myself just might be a big record company executive in disguise!’

‘Are you?’ squealed Millie, in excitement, handing him a cd.

‘Sadly no,’ he laughed, peering at the disc, ‘but I do know one or two people who know one or two people who might be able to help you. If your demo’s any good, that is.’

‘Well of course they’re just rough sketches,’ I began, just recorded on a …’

Withnail shook his head and put his finger to his lips.

‘Shhhhh. Let the music speak for itself,’ he murmured, flipping up the lid of his Walkman, inserting our cd and wiggling his headphones into place.

He pressed play and closed his eyes, his poker face giving away nothing at all. All we could hear was the tck tck tck tiss tiss of the track and exchanged nervous glances.

‘Mmmmm, good vocal,’ Withnail mumbled, his head swaying slightly from side to side.

Millie nudged me, her face breaking slowly into a smile.

‘Yep, nice chorus, bass could do a bit more, harmonies, yes …’ he continued, before yanking out his headphones and shaking his mane of dark hair.

Neither of us spoke but both raised our eyebrows inquisitively.

‘Not bad, not bad at all. You’ve a lovely voice,’ he added, turning to Millie, who blushed with pride.

‘What d’you reckon then?’ she asked. ‘Can you help at all?’

Withnail rubbed his chin and breathed deeply.

‘Fancy a drink?’ he said, ‘let’s talk things over in the pub.’

Two pints of lager and a packet of crisps please!!!

It was here that we first became aware of Withnail’s incredible philanthropy and generosity. He insisted on buying every round of drinks and when we’d talked for hours and grown hungry he stood us for Chinese food on the way home.

That afternoon and evening we chatted incessantly, instantly finding we had a rapport in more things than just a love for music. We told him about ourselves and our trials and tribulations with musicians, producers and industry moguls. I told him of my obsession with 60’s black and white movies and Millie admitted she’d once been to a Levellers’ concert, something she deeply regretted now. I told him all about the time I ended up sharing a stage with Chas and Dave while Millie revealed her secret desire to appear in an episode of EastEnders, playing the part of a someone who goes up to Ian Beale and asks him if he ever fancied taking acting lessons.

Despite our experiences in the music business leading us to conclude that we should trust no one we opened up our hearts to this kind-faced stranger. At the time we ran into Withnail we’d just been through a rather painful episode with a management company who’d not only left us up shit creek without a paddle but stranded on a particularly sticky mud bank too. Our band, such as it was, was barely speaking to each other. We’d tried desperately to revive interest in the group by arranging rehearsals and recording new demos, but six months had passed with little progress. It was after yet another disastrous practice session that our guitarist had stormed out early, leaving Millie and I idly killing time in WaxWerks. I didn’t believe in Karma, but maybe Withnail was beginning to convert me.

He never told us what he did on that first meeting, apart from a few references to his contacts in the entertainments world, but somehow we felt we could trust him. We could see in his dark, grey eyes that he meant every word he said. He had an aura of confidence and assurance, without seeming cocky or arrogant, and he never let us down. I wished I could have said the same about Joe Matthews.

Help me if you can I’m feeling down …

Initially, Withnail passed our demos around to a few producers he knew, all the time warning, “beware the bastards!” Most said they liked what they heard, but were too busy in other projects to help right away. He introduced us to various friends and contacts, all desperately following the same route as us – carefully navigating their way in the treacherous waters of the music industry. We made friends with other musicians, up-and-coming programmers, gig promoters, DJs and wheeler-dealer types always on the look out for a half-decent band. In the end, although everybody seemed keen to help out, the general consensus was ‘look after number one’. More to the point, it always seemed to boil down to money – or rather a lack of it. No one had any to spend on recording studios or rehearsal time or photo shoots, so we resorted to scavenging around, looking for the next favour. We became masters in the art of ‘blagging’ – forever promising that when we sign the Big Deal, that person would be first in the queue for the large money handout. But the Big Deal never came our way. To his credit, Withnail persisted, and eventually one of our demos ended up on a desk of a management company that looked after various producers and record engineers. One of these producers was Joe.

From Under The Covers

Originals versus cover versions … after a year and a half of sweating, crying and tearing out of hair over a bunch of original songs I half-heartedly, hastily and hedonistically threw together a bunch of covers from the 80’s (which was fun, I have to admit and thoroughly enjoyable). Soundcloud and Facebook ‘likes’ aside – seems this little jaunt proved more popular than my own efforts. So, what’s a fella to do next? Keep perspiring, worrying, fretting or have some fun?

With cover versions, someone else has already done all the hard work … someone else with the talent and ability to write a hit song. All I needed to do was copy their notes (which, in the days on MacBooks and LogicPro is easier than ever) and warble along in my own special way … ie: sounding a bit like Al Stewart with a bad cold that he seems unable to shift, despite buckets of Lemsip and Olbas menthol oil.)

Perversely, I tried a couple of Al Stewart songs, (naturally, ‘Year of the Cat’ and ‘On The Border’), and failed, more spectacularly than Mike Read’s theatre impresario career. (Perhaps ‘I Should Have Listened To Al’ and heeded his own advice ‘If It Doesn’t Come Naturally, Leave It’.) *

*With apologies to non-Al fans …

It has been suggested that I form a covers / tribute band. I have several issues with this, even though the idea does have its appeal. Firstly, I neither look nor sound like anyone remotely famous – although there was an ‘hilarious’ incident at Camden Market one Sunday when I was recognised as the lead singer of ‘Bucks Fizz’. Secondly, my ability with covers is quite limited … I’m not a ‘natural performer’ – I don’t throw the correct shapes or do the duck walk or straddle monitors. My stage banter is poor, (and that’s being kind to my stage banter) and the more time I spend on my MacBook the more my guitar playing deteriorates.

Furthermore, and this I believe is the major obstacle, is I simply cannot come up with a humorous, clever enough name for my tribute act. Once I’ve found my name then I’ll know what kind of tribute band I am in, but until then I will remain forever in the covers band wilderness.

‘The Beautiful Southmartins’ has been taken, as has ‘Nirvanaramarama.’ The wonderful Julie Bunn has taken ‘Parallel Times’ for her own Blondie tribute. ‘Voodoo Room’ play the music of Hendrix and Cream, ‘Abbatoir’ – heavy metal Abba, of course, ‘Nearly Dan’ and  one that tickled me most ‘AB/CD’ … genius, or does the joke wear thin as soon as the first D chord is struck?

Maybe a ‘good-time-party-band’ is the answer to my career dilemma. The competition is pretty stiff though – some offer ‘all the hits and more’. Without going all Stewart Lee … https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E7dYXVLPd6Y … I was wondering once you’ve played ‘all’ the hits, what hits are left?

So on this beautiful sunny day my guitar remains gathering dust while my laptop keys forever vibrate with my ceasless tap-tapping. It’s the modern way, apparently …

‘Paul King Stole My Haircut’ #1

If I don’t get your calls then everything goes wrong

I lazily clicked on the radio again. I needed the noise it omitted even if I didn’t always absorb the content. The radio, or TV sometimes, were there for their companionship as much as their entertainment value, particularly when Millie was at work or out shopping. I fumbled for a talk station or a sports station, a channel that could provide me with the company I craved while I worked out what exactly I was going to do with my life. Or at least, what I was going to do with it while I waited for Joe Matthews.

My high-backed director’s chair was comfortable, the radio presenter’s voice was warm and showing compassion to a woman whose story was being told on a regular feature, ‘Who’s The Daddy?’ where children from sink estates try to figure out their parental lineage. After the adrenalin rush of faking my illness to Neil my heartbeat slowed and I began to relax. The anxiety surrounding Joe, my work situation and my music career began to ease, helped by the distraction of the radio. I started to daydream, imagining Millie and myself being interviewed about our latest chart-topping single and wondering what I would say about why I’d written what I’d written and the deep meaning of it all. Or would I do what John Lennon did with ‘I Am The Walrus’ and deliberately make up a load of old nonsense, just to play with the minds of overly serious music journalists.

Ring, ring, why don’t you give me a call

All of a sudden my mobile phone buzzed into life and awoke me from my semi-conscious dream, dragging me back to reality. ‘Quick!’ it seemed to scream, its neon face beaming impatiently. ‘Someone actually wants to talk to you!’

Even though Joe’s name flashed up on the screen I still had to rub my eyes and double-check that it was indeed his name and number. He called so rarely that for a split-second I thought my mind might be playing tricks. I took a deep breath and pressed to accept the call.

‘Hi. Joe. You ok?’

My voice was staccato and faltering as I found it difficult to breathe, such was my confused state of apprehension and excitement. Gone was my earlier confidence when speaking to Neil.

‘Hi mate, how are you?’ he replied, snuffling away. His permanent cocaine sniff had got considerably worse in the days since we’d last spoken. ‘I got your text. Thanks.’

‘No problem,’ I replied. ‘What you up to?’

The introductory small talk was useful in judging what kind of mood he was going to be in. To say that Joe was somewhat temperamental was an understatement. He had a well-known habit of pissing people off, and I’d never known anyone so precious about his own work. He hated keeping to record company deadlines, believing them to be an unnecessary evil imposed by people in suits who ‘couldn’t spot quality production if it leaped up and bit them on the backside.’ He would also never play to anyone examples of his labours he didn’t consider to be 100% perfect – a control freak to the boiling point of frustration whereby rarely anything he did actually got released on time and within budget. Millie and I often wondered why we were bothering with such a man but always found ourselves answering with the same reply – when it came to production, he did actually know what he was doing.

‘I’m just doing a bit of editing on Pro Tools,’ he said, sniffing deeply. ‘On Jake Beckford’s new stuff.’

I could hear Joe ‘tap tapping’ away on the keys of his laptop as we talked.

‘How’s it coming along?’ I asked, feigning interest in the notorious ex-boyband singer’s latest comeback attempt. ‘Have you finished his new single yet?’

‘Well, it’s nearly there,’ he replied. ‘But I can’t get hold of Jake to re-do part of the backing vocal. It’s awful. Totally out of tune in the choruses.’

‘Where is he then?’

‘Oh, he’s off doing a stupid reality show,’ Joe grumbled. ‘That’s the risk you take working with ex-boy band members. Always jumping at some sort of celebrity nonsense at the drop of a hat. I mean, he’s supposed to be a singer, but he gets paid more if he pretends he’s interested in gardening or cooking or painting houses!”

‘When’s he back?’ I asked, really getting quite fed up with hearing about Jake ‘Golden Boy’ Beckford.

‘A couple of weeks at least,’ Joe sniffed, so I’m stuck here on my tod trying to edit as much as I can without him. I’m thinking of hiring in that girl who did his last single. Don’t ever tell him, but he actually thinks he sang on ‘Weak Without You Girl’.’

‘That wasn’t Jake then?’ I asked incredulously. ‘Sounded like him.’

‘Aah, tricks of the trade Jon boy,’ Joe sighed. ‘A bit of pitch shift here, a little dab of vari-speed there. Bingo. Jake Beckford sings! Only it’s not. It’s a girl from West Hamstead called Abi.’

I tutted and made sounds like ‘yeah’ and ‘cuh’ as if I knew this stuff was going on all along. I’d heard rumours that modern day pop puppets didn’t do a lot of performing on their songs, and here was one of their producers confirming the fact.

The conversation fell silent. I bit on my lip. Dare I ask about the studio time he’d promised us? With Jake Beckford out of the way for the time being it did seem feasible that Joe would have a few hours to spare. I really wanted him to tell me it was all still on, but I could feel in my bones he was going to put it off again. In all the time we’d known Joe, he’d found countless excuses to move the recording until a later date. Eventually, his sniff broke the silence and I couldn’t sense any discerning guilt in his voice.

‘So how’s Millie?’

‘Fine,’ I replied, tersely. ‘She’s gone off to Camden. She’s bored waiting for fame and fortune, so she’s off spending next month’s rent money. Retail therapy, don’t you know?’

I hoped to make him feel responsible for our discontent, which seemed to work, as the ‘tap tap tapping’ momentarily ceased. In its place I heard the uncomfortable buzz of mobile phone static in my ear.

‘What are you up to now?’ he said, expertly avoiding the subject of studio time. ‘Written any more songs?’

Bastard! I hated that question. Ever since I’d got involved in the music industry, people always asked for more songs. Managers, record labels, venue promoters, producers, all of them. ‘I love your stuff,’ they’d say. ‘Have you got any more?’

It didn’t matter how much I protested that I did have some more material, but it wasn’t properly recorded, just on home tape. ‘Oh it doesn’t matter,’ they’d reply. ‘Sing into a Dictaphone for all we care. We just need to hear the idea of a song.’

This was the biggest load of bullshit I’d ever heard, almost a compulsory phrase they must teach people in the business. I used to fall for it and dutifully send off poorly recorded tracks, which of course led nowhere. I finally learnt my lesson when a recognised manager (who had specifically vowed that a guitar and vocal would suffice) came back with the considered reaction ‘What’s with the ‘Everything But The Girl’ vibe?’

‘No I haven’t bothered,’ I said, trying to stay calm. ‘I’ve not really been in the mood for it. Been waiting for the recording sessions to start.’

Damm! No going back now. I’d mentioned studio time.

‘I want to concentrate on the songs we’ve already written,’ I added hastily.

‘Yeah, I understand,’ said Joe. ‘Well, if you do come up with something new, let me know. I’d like to hear it.’

I could tell he wasn’t going to say anything else, and in my experience that meant we were being fobbed off again. Otherwise, he’d be telling me all about the studio and what days we’d go in and what equipment we’d need to bring. My mouth was dry and I looked on my desk for something to quench my thirst. There was still half a mug of tea left over from the night before in my favourite Beatles mug. I took a swig of the cold, milky tea and gulped hard.

‘So we’re still all right for coming round soon then?’ I asked.

There was another theatrical pause while Joe seemed to be inhaling something quite deeply.

‘Ah well it’s a bit tricky,’ he began, sniffing away again. ‘You see as soon as Jake’s back I really want to nail down those vocals. So I might have to look at re-scheduling you guys for sometime later.’

Re-scheduling? We hadn’t even been scheduled!

‘And then Mickey Dunn’s sister wants to come in and do some tracks,’ he continued.

‘Mickey Dunn’s sister!’ I exclaimed in disbelief. ‘What on earth is she doing?’

Mickey Dunn was an infamous wheeler-dealer – a real-life Arthur Daley of the pop industry. Mickey was old school, and by that I don’t mean naff 80’s dance tunes. He conducted his business dealings by shouting loudly, waving his arms around and swearing profusely. Every band he came into contact with ended up getting signed to a record label, whether the label bosses wanted them signed or not. Mickey was far too scary to argue with and the word ‘no’ didn’t exist in his personal vocabulary. Despite this, 99% of Mickey’s acts flopped. But this didn’t stop the signings continuing, as Mickey had once struck gold with The Meglomanics, a noisy, hairy, troglodyte group from Hull. Despite ripping off every decent tune written by other bands they’d incredibly become worldwide superstars, making lots of people very, very rich indeed.

So Mickey was forever living off the possibility that just one day he might stumble upon another Meglomaniacs and the record label bosses pampered him and spoilt him and gave him advances that he squandered on talent-less indie bands while living the life of Riley on fat expense accounts. It was good work, if you could get it.

Needless to say, a band like ours was aware of Mickey Dunn’s failure rate and avoided him like the plague. We didn’t want to be associated with failure at that rate. And apart from the odd set of impressionable Emo kids, so did every other musician trying to get a deal. So Mickey must have well reached the bottom of the barrel when he put forward his own sister as a possible recording artist.

‘Oh Mickey wants me to help her write and record some songs,’ Joe answered my question sheepishly.

‘What for?’ I asked. ‘Has she got a deal or anything? I mean, can she even sing? Has she even got an act?’

‘Oh I don’t know,’ he replied, with some irritation. ‘Who knows with Mickey?’

Joe was truly starting to infuriate me.

‘So that’s preferable over us, is it?’ I said, my voice starting to crack. ‘When our songs are written, rehearsed and ready to go?’

Now it was Joe’s throat that was going dry.

‘It’s just that Mickey has promised me a bit of cash and I really need the money,’ he protested.

‘And I don’t?’

‘Look Jon,’ he tried to reason. ‘Even if we started in the studio tomorrow, you still wouldn’t be any nearer to getting any money.’

He was technically right, because I wouldn’t see any money from my publishing deal until the record had been made, distributed, promoted and sold. But he was patronising me now.

‘Yeah, well, if we’d made a start six weeks ago as you promised, we’d be six weeks closer, wouldn’t we!’ I said, provocatively.

‘You know that I’ve had trouble, what with Jake never being available when I need him and then Mickey asking me to do him this favour.’

‘But that’s got nothing to do with us, has it?’ I objected. ‘Why should somebody like Mickey Dunn’s sister, who I don’t even know, dictate my life?’

Silence. He knew the answer. It shouldn’t.

‘All I can say is be patient,’ he sniffed. ‘I know it’s painful, but we’ll get there in the end.’

I didn’t know what to say or how to react and suddenly felt very tired. Joe didn’t care – he didn’t have to care. He had the Golden Goose that was Jake Beckford, and then every eighteen months or so he’s have another ex-boy or ex-girlband member waving an advances cheque in his face, desperately looking for a producer to help them launch their solo career.

‘Yeah, well, give us a call when you’ve got a better idea of a date then,’ I said wearily, sloshing ‘round the remnants of cold tea in my mug.

‘All right. Stay in touch,’ said Joe, who sounded like he’d resumed his tapping. ‘And ‘hi’ to Millie!’

I slammed the phone down on him – that is, if you can slam down a mobile. I stared furiously at the handset, trying to send some angry thought waves in Joe’s direction. Now I had the thankless task of telling Millie that the recording date was postponed again, and I had no idea when we’d be actually starting the sessions in the future.

 Everybody’s on Top Of The Pops

The reality of the music business had hit hard. My teenage dreams of Top of the Pops and touring the world remained just that – teenage dreams, and they seemed as far away now as ever. What made it worse, was that this was my pop industry; the one I had invested my entire youth into, my inspiration, my very reason for being. How can you love something you hate so much? The back stabbing and bitching had become part and parcel of the job, and Millie and I were now as cynical and screwed up as the rest of them. When we signed our first record deal we thought we’d made it, but it didn’t take us long to work out that even with the best legal advise in the world, you still couldn’t stop someone being an arsehole.

These Cars Collide …

The second best name for a band I ever heard was ‘These Cars Collide’ (a lyric from a verse of The Psychedelic Furs song ‘Pretty in Pink’). They were a local group and I never heard them or saw them but I could only imagine how cool, hip and urban they must have been, with a moniker destined for large billboards outside Wembley, Budokan, Madison Square Garden and The Hairy Lemon, Old Kent Road.

Of course the best name for any band was/is ‘The Beatles’. They thought of it first and they were the Fabs and so that’s that.

When Sting told everyone his group were called ‘The Police’ there followed natural derision – until he explained that whenever anyone heard the word ‘police’ in everyday parlance they might also be reminded of the screeching, peroxide bothering trio who should have been kept away from lutes at all cost.

An aquaintance of mine is currently exploring a new tag for his fledgling combo. As is the way in such matter it is proving more than a challenge to satisfy firstly his own conscience, then his fellow bandmates and finally his listening public (ie: his girlfriend) that the nominated suggestions are anything more than slightly awful and anything less than downright atrocious.

“You can’t call your band ‘So and So’ because there’s already someone called ‘Thingy and the So and So’s’ I remark, somewhat helpfully, somewhat in exasperation when met with quizzical eyebrows. ‘Nor can you call yourselves ‘This, This and This’ because you sound like a drag act from 1973 – (not that there’s anything wrong with being an early 70’s variety, music hall, burlesque novelty but when you’re five lads from south London playing ‘rock with a tinge of funk and a soul sensibility’ you’re really barking up the wrong metaphorical tree.)

‘Also’, I add as a post-script, ‘the name’s too long and it won’t fit on a tee-shirt without the lettering being shrunk to point 14.’ You have to think of your ‘merch’ these days.

I suggested using the chap’s actual, real, authentic name (which, is really, actually quite cool.) I followed up this idea by referring to Manfred Mann, Alice Cooper, The J. Geils Band or Hanson. Seems the rest of the group would have a problem with this matter, recognition for their efforts being key, and all that.

My favourite tribute band name has to be ‘Nirvanaramarama’ – possibly a grunge trio playing the hits of a big-haired, 80’s girl group who couldn’t dance or a big-haired, 80’s girl group with limited dancing ability singing the hits of a grunge trio. I fear Googling whether they do in fact exist … it would spoil the mystique!

The Google age has lent itself to this age-old problem too; as bands find to their cost that their hard thought-out moniker is actually the number one search result for a crumbly singer with bad teeth and a dodgy hair-piece from the 1960’s. Take it away, Englebert …

 

 

The Business We All Call ‘Show’

During a lull in my day, (which doesn’t happen as often as I’d like and usually when it does it’s when I’m sat on top of the 345 to South Kensington, trundling down Cedar Avenue towards Lavender Hill), I considered why, when the internet had supposedly opened up the world, known universe and beyond* to us aspirational musicians it was actually harder to get our songs heard than ever before?

(*The Stone Roses’ controversial record contract …)

Back in the day, (whenever that day literally or figuratively existed), a simple cassette tape, (ask your parents, kids), black and white photograph and covering, handwritten letter, (again ….) would normally be sufficient for the attention of a cloth-eared A&R man (they were usually all men so please don’t shout at me) at a major record label.

Having said that, a university friend of mine once had the holiday job at such a label – his laborious task being stuffing letters in envelopes – letters which said: “Thank you for your interest in our company. However much we liked your songs, and indeed, they are the finest songs known to man, we cannot possibly record them at the moment, having just spent our entire budget on signing ****** ******** and fired half our staff as we can no longer afford their wages due the advance ****** ******** has pocketed.”

Agreed, piles and piles of small, manilla envelopes may well have been ignored by A&R folks and who knows whether the next Beatles, Smiths, Kinks, T-Rex, Bowie, Kate Bush or Ronan Keating may have slipped through the net, but at least the net was there – dangling precariously over the lake of tears shed by skinny indie kids, the puddles of sweat left by marauding hard rockers, layers of eyeliner discarded by Whitby-bound Goths or the furrowed brow stencils of earnest singer-songwriters etched upon Nick Drake songbooks and Jeff Buckley bedroom wall posters.

Nowadays the net, (being the internet), is more like a giant sieve – with an infinite number of holes but clogged up with sticky porridge oats letting nothing through except the most turgid, gloopy mess imaginable.

My own music is in there somewhere, trying to seep through, trying desperately to move and breathe in amongst the airless stodge of mainstream, indigestible pudding. It’s not that I ever craved success in the form of fame or fortune; more recognition for achievement. When ‘Taxi’ nearly were it was the closest I’d come to realising that ambition – although bouncing up and down on a pink, day-glo podium on children’s TV was the furthest from imagining myself as some sort of John Sebastian character – leading the choruses at Woodstock.

I will never be a pop star – that much is true – and was probably never destined to be one either. These days, a few humble plays on a social media site is the best I can expect. But bitterness evades me … the business is just that, a ‘business’. Music should come from the heart and the soul – during the ‘Taxi’ years that didn’t always happen and contrivance took over.

Still, a few more extra ‘plays’ would be nice …

Miserable Moz

This week I was staring at my laptop, looking at a mountain-range of vein-blue coloured inky squiggles that represent the hiccups and burps of a double-tracked vocal part. These days the ‘life’ of a musician is sometimes more akin to that of a laboratory-based scientist or cubicle inmate of an IT consultancy as we tap-tap away on our keyboards, doing the two-finger tango and the fox-trot four-step.

I’d lazily remarked (to whoever was listening) that I’d become a lesser guitar player over the years, as practise on my instrument had been overtaken by dexterity with the digits on first Cakewalk, then Cubase and finally Logic Pro software music sequencing programmes. I’d like to imagine myself as John Lennon, (complaining to everyone who was listening), that The Beatles had gone backwards as musicians, as due to the screaming fans, popping lightbulbs, Jelly Babies (thrown at George) and ever increasing studio sessions.

In my case, I’d just grown lazy. ‘Taxi’ split up so long ago and I had lost the natural desire I’d had as a skinny teenager to ‘leap on stage although I couldn’t play’ (apologies, Edwyn Collins for borrowing and adapting that line). The buzz of those first, ramshackle gigs with our home-made monitors, borrowed disco lights, Casio keyboard and a guitar that was possibly bought one Christmas from Ronco had long gone.

The thrill of rehearsing and performing two-hours worth of material (albeit mainly cover versions of rock standards that we assumed, wrongly, people wanted to hear) had disappeared down the same plughole that ‘Taxi’ had been so unceremoniously washed away one rain-soaked afternoon in Hatton Garden. Gigs became a chore, a burden and an unwanted distraction from my main love – writing songs. I’d lost my naive belief that I was a competent guitarist and so began compensating with my newly discovered computerised ‘toys’ – midi based strings and tin pot pianos, flutes which sounded more like tin whistles played by small children who have discovered annoying sound for the first time.

I came home from work this week and opened up my laptop. The coloured strips of audio and midi stared back, blankly. I gazed at the rows of digitised music, trying to remember what it was I’d planned to work on, as I lazily lent my head against the condensation drizzled window of the 345 to South Kensington, squirming on my seat next to a prickled, sharp-faced woman with steely-bladed finger nails, irritatingly snap snapping on her mobile phone.

The man in the seat in front of me wore an enormous pair of headphones playing music the whole bus could hear.

Two French students babbled excitedly in their native tongue, occasionally lapsing into English and I regreted my own lack of language skills.

A rotund, dessert plate-faced boy shovelled fast food into his button-holed mouth as fast as he could, which reminded me of my recent stay in hospital (although I rarely eat anything wrapped in greaseproof paper).

I sighed and shut the lid of my laptop. Work had won.

Music has long since stopped being the main focus in my life, at least in a ‘career’ sense of the word. I’ve long since stopped chasing the dream like an eager puppy chases a stick, even following it into cold, murky waters – returning again and again to the desolate cold, knowing every time the item I so desired would be swept away from my desperate grasp, thrown further and further into the distance until even the ever-optimistic and bright-eyed puppy in me relented with the game of fetch.

Somewhere, out there, is a magic formula to a ‘work-life balance’. There may even be time to practice the guitar again …