Sign your name across my heart …
Elliott finally showed up in The Dog just after 7:15. Millie, as ever, was far from impressed with our guitarist’s timekeeping.
‘Where’ve you been, you idiot!’
‘Oh hi Mills,’ he said, nonchalantly. ‘Am I late?’
‘Don’t call me Mills!’ she screamed. ‘And yes, you are late.’
‘Oh, like, sorry,’ he mumbled. ‘I forgot to put on my watch this morning, but I thought if I was late it wouldn’t matter ‘cos you guys would sort everything.’
He wasn’t wrong. We always sorted everything.
‘You might have called us,’ Millie continued. ‘But in any case, we tried your phone, and it wasn’t on.’
‘Well, I don’t want to waste the battery, do I?’ he protested.
Millie was about to launch into a tirade of ‘what’s the point of having a mobile phone if you never turn it on’ but there wasn’t time. I pulled at her sleeve.
‘Leave it,’ I said. ‘Don’t waste your breath. He’s not listening. Anyway, Mervyn’s not here yet, either.’
‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘I just wanted everything to be perfect.’
I nodded in agreement and looked around to see if our erstwhile Mr Big had made his entrance. I wondered quite what the lonely old men supping pints who stared at us as we walked in must have made of it all. Four scruffy, skinny blokes and a pretty girl, out of our depths and possibly, with what we were about to do, out of our minds. We were due to meet Mervyn Lester, a ruddy-faced Welshman who had offered us a record deal after Millie sent him one of our demos. Lester wasn’t a big player in the business by any chalk, but his small, independent production company boasted an array of minor chart hits and he certainly talked a good fight. In conversation he often dropped names of producers and artists we’d heard of, although we were never quite sure exactly what his relationship with them was. As starry-eyed youngsters though, we grew wrapped around his little finger and talked excitedly of TV appearances, world tours and a chance to meet our rock ‘n’ roll heroes. Initially, he hadn’t seemed terribly impressed by our collection of poorly recorded songs, but Millie hadn’t been in the mood to be given the brush off. She somehow persuaded Lester to haul himself off his fat backside to see us play in one of Camden’s smaller, though equally foul-smelling clubs. We performed competently enough, and while exchanging pleasantries with a few beers after the gig, Lester delivered those magic words:
‘Right you lot. I think I could do something with you. Let me get back to my office, and tomorrow I’ll draw up a contract.’
I could feel Millie’s boot kicking my leg underneath the table. We were sat like swans on a lake: on top calm and composed, underneath hysterically kicking and screaming.
‘That’s great,’ she said, smiling at Lester while trying to act as if being offered a record deal was a perfectly normal, everyday event.
‘Right, I’ll be in touch,’ said Lester, swallowing the last dregs of his beer, slamming down the empty glass, and making his way out through the dispersing crowd.
When he’d gone, it was safe to let go. Millie squealed with delight, while Greg, Elliott and I shook hands and laughed. Lucas banged the table with the palms of his hands and wore the broadest grin. We’d done it. That was that. Roll on Popworld and the big limousines. We pooled up our remaining cash and ordered the cheapest sparkling wine from the bar to celebrate. As we chinked glasses we each dreamed of the future.
‘I can’t wait for the first video,’ said Millie. ‘I’ll wear this long, designer Wayne Hemmingway dress and get my hair personally done by Vidal Sassoon, and we’ll get Tim Pope to direct it and Robert Smith can make a guest appearance…’
‘…and I’ll get an active Music Man Stingray bass,’ interrupted Greg, with single humbucker tone, and wide string spacing and a 3-1 headstock …’
‘…Rickenbacker 325V63, Fender American Standard Telecaster, Les Paul 56 Goldtop …’ continued Elliott.
‘…Pearl export 5-piece with Mahogany shells, Remo Roto Toms, a Sabian 21” Dry Ride and a lackey to carry the stuff to and from gigs…’ said Lucas, relieved he would no longer have to haul his kit around rehearsals and gigs in the back of his cramped Vauxhall Nova.
‘…Ben Sherman, some arty David Byrne movie …’ I mused, dreaming of all the corporate adverts and cool films my songs could be used in.
For a brief moment, we allowed ourselves to be overtaken with emotion, disappearing into the realms of our rock ‘n’ roll fantasies. For once, my cynicism evaporated and all my worries about my age, hair, looks, ability and stage presence dissolved into the bubbles of cheap lager in the thick, smoke-filled Camden air.
Only in the cold light of the following morning did I fully take stock of the previous evening’s events. It must be thousands of people’s dreams to sign a record deal, I considered, and now we were about to fulfil that dream. The strangest thing was, the sensation wasn’t at all as I’d expected. I gradually realised that I’d never thought of anything beyond signing a contract. I felt a mild panic. What do we do now?
The band always looked to me and Millie, as if we were somehow more experienced than them. In some ways we were. We’d gigged in bigger venues and Millie in particular always gave the impression that she was a music business veteran. The truth was, none of us had been signed before, and we were all heading off into unknown territory. I thought about the others revelling in the moment, no doubt not thinking too hard about the future. This was my moment, our moment, their moment. I couldn’t go back to being a dreamer. The dream was effectively over. I’d been offered a recording deal and I felt numb.
Don’t believe in anything …
We weren’t the least surprised when Lester suggested the formal signing in a pub, and not his office. Over the preceding months we’d never seen his place of work, and had always met in a bar or café. Somehow, we never doubted he didn’t have a proper administrative centre. Looking back, we never harboured the thought that he actually worked from the bedroom of his basement flat in Stoke Newington. We were constantly diverted from his workplace by a last minute phone call, suggesting alternatives. Gullible as we were, we were always happy to swap our journey plans from a flat in Stokey to a Soho pub to have a beer or three. Looking back, I realised Mervyn was playing a cunning game, plying us with alcohol to avoid having to discuss any real business.
Back in the honeymoon period we readily accepted the preliminary contract drawn up by Melvyn’s lawyer. We were offered an initial eighteen-month deal, with a further eighteen-month option for at least one more album. Each should consist of a minimum twenty-four songs. I’d half-expected a leather-bound folder and some expensive, watermarked paper, with reams and reams of paragraphs, maybe sealed with a red ribbon. All we were handed was half a dozen photocopies of some poorly typed script, stapled loosely in the top left-hand corner. Still, I fervently examined the print, just like the others. We each had a copy to scrutinise, although most of it was legal jargon. We discovered we could claim legal assistance from the Musician’s Union, and so all clubbed together so that Millie could join and obtain the help. The contract then proceeded to bounce backwards and forwards between us and the lawyers like an exceedingly dull baseline rally in the second round of the ladies’ singles on an outside court at Wimbledon.
The lawyers reduced the amount of tracks suggested to twelve, which was promptly raised by Lester to eighteen. The advance, which red topped dailies usually reported in millions when covering deals signed by pretty pop puppets, was a meagre forty thousand pounds. Although we wouldn’t actually see any of this money, Lester assured us that it would buy the best studio time available. As naive as we were we didn’t see any reason to argue. After all, we’d been used to spending four to five hundred pounds on studio demos, so forty thousand seemed like winning the Lottery. Our image rights were secured, lost and secured again. The territories that we were to be exploited to went from the known universe and beyond, to simply the world and its identified regions. Greg’s address had to be altered from Copenhagen Close to Copenhagen Street, effectively moving him from Acton to King’s Cross. Oh, and we found out that Elliott’s real first name was Louis. Louis Elliott Tristan Barker. He’d changed to using his second name after being mercilessly teased at primary school with jibes of ‘Lou’, or ‘Loo’ and ‘Toilet Boy’ and ‘Bog Head’. Eventually, the contract was finalised, and a date was set to meet up in The Dog and put pen to paper.
When Lester finally arrived, three-quarters of an hour late, we were more than anxious. We’d downed a second pint each and Lucas had made six trips to the toilet. Elliott had further aggravated Millie by constantly calling his girlfriend on his mobile, trying to arrange his evening plans. All we could hear was Elliott saying, ‘I don’t know how long I’ll be, not much longer, tell everyone I’ll be there soon,’ as if he had better things to do and better places to go. I’d waited all my life for this and it seemed Elliott would rather be anywhere else than here.
Lester’s entrance was marked with an ironic round of applause from Lucas and Greg, whose nerves, apprehension and lager were making them act out completely of character. Lester blustered into the bar, an oversized black leather bag slung over his shoulder that was in danger of upsetting any beer glass in his wake. We weren’t surprised to see him dressed in a gaudy yellow and black short-sleeved shirt and tight cycling shorts, his red face puffed out and his forehead covered in tiny beads of sweat. Lester was the furthest thing from a conventional record company executive, appearing more like a cartoon character from The Beano or Dandy. There was no suit, tie or ponytail – just a high pitched Welsh accent, a bizarre range of inappropriate, ill-fitting clothing and an embarrassing tendency to use the word ‘fantastic’, even when things weren’t. Lester huffed and puffed and dangled his bag over the back of an empty chair. We watched with stifled giggles as he struggled manfully to pull his bulging wallet from the confines of his unyielding Lycra shorts. Lester ordered a triple JD and Coke, then somehow managed to both offend and confuse the barman by complaining that the music on the jukebox was both ‘fantastic’ and ‘fucking awful’, the shots of JD too small, the amount of ice ‘fantastic’ and the number 47 bus a fucking disgrace to ‘fantastic’ London ‘fucking’ Transport.
Finally, the dust settled and Lester joined us at our table. Flapping about in his gigantic bag he pulled out six finalised copies of our contract. As we sat round the table, Lester read out the vital terms.
‘Right then you lot, ‘ he began. ‘We’re all agreed on a basic one-album deal, consisting of twelve fantastic tracks plus three extra as potential ‘b’ sides, re-mixes notwithstanding.’
We all nodded.
‘The recording period covers an initial six months,’ Lester continued, ‘followed by the maximum of a year’s fantastic promotion and exploitation by me. If successful, I give you the fantastic revised option of a further album.’
‘And if not?’ asked Millie.
‘If not, you fuck off and leave me in peace,’ he replied. ‘Look, if I fail to effectively promote your fantastic record, you’ll be free to go once the fantastic eighteen-month period is up.’
‘Sounds simple enough,’ said Lucas. After all, we’ve recorded five song demos in three days before. It’s gonna be real be easy to do fifteen in six months.’
-‘I’ll provide the studio,’ continued Lester, ‘from which all costs, including fantastic engineer, producer and sundry expenditure will be deducted from the fantastic forty grand.’
‘Fantastic,’ said Greg, missing the irony completely.
We were all nodding and agreeing with Lester, even though we didn’t really have much of a clue whether we were being sold down the river or not. I’d been warned that I would sign the first deal was plonked in front of me, legal advice or not, but I scorned the notion that I wouldn’t know what I was getting into. In the end, nervousness took over and I sat poised, biro in hand, hovering excitedly on the edge of my seat ready to commit my soul to the devil. In this case, Lucifer was represented by a ridiculous Welshman in obscene cycling shorts.
Beginning with Millie, we each scrawled our signatures across the bottom page of the contract. Greg was the last to sign, followed by Lester’s own scribbled acknowledgment as a witness. Lester bundled up all the copies and stuffed them unceremoniously into his large bag. What now, I thought. Champagne corks a-popping? Brass band playing? Twenty-four gun salute?
‘Fine,’ said Lester, raising his glass and swigging the last few drops of JD and Coke. ‘Tell you what, I’ll get busy hunting out fantastic producers and have a nose around a few fantastic studios. Congratulations.’
We shook hands with Lester and each other and then the Welshmen made to leave. As he stumbled erratically out of The Dog, unaware that he’d upset an old man’s Guinness, we all breathed huge sighs of relief and eased back into our chairs.
‘Well, that’s it folks,’ said Millie. ‘I think we’ve finally made it.’
‘Frickin’ hope so!’ grinned Elliott. ‘Just think, no more having to organise grotty gigs or pay for rehearsals.’
‘Yeah, or having to put up with shitty engineers and piss-poor demos,’ agreed Lucas.
‘You two must be relieved,’ suggested Greg, pointing and me and Millie.
‘How come?’ I asked.
‘Well, after the original line-up of Detox Cute nearly got signed but then someone screwed things up, I guess you might have thought that you’re big chance had gone.’
‘You’re so right,- sighed Millie. ‘After that shambles I never thought I’d see the day when we’d ever put pen to paper.’
‘Let’s hope no one fucks this up,’ I smirked, aiming a knowing glance in Elliott’s direction.
‘Hey!’ he protested. ‘What the hell was that look for?’
I raised my eyebrows in mock indignation.
‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘Just making sure we all agree not to do anything which might jeopardise this deal.’
Before our guitarist could retaliate, his mobile rang. Typical. He was soon engrossed in arrangements for meeting Natalie somewhere in the West End at some god-awful-sounding late night bar, where beer cost five pounds a bottle and you needed to fill out a means-test application form proving you earned at least fifty ‘k’ a year to get past the burly doormen.
We were pissed off that Elliott didn’t want to stay and enjoy himself with the rest of the band and begrudgingly waved him off in the direction of Shaftesbury Avenue. The rest of the evening was spent getting more and more inebriated until our cash supplies ran so low we began ordering pints of beer accompanied by four straws. For that brief moment in time we felt invincible – prospective conquerors of the music business – who would take Wembley Arena by storm and then begin the biggest invasion of America and the Far East since the Beatles and The Stones. Quite how we’d do this on forty grand I’d no idea, but as long as the booze kept our brains fuddled we enjoyed the fantasy.
Keep the dream alive …
The intervening weeks were a glorious honeymoon period, as we basked in the limelight of having a record deal and idly made plans for TV appearances. We argued good-naturedly about how we would travel on tour, what countries we would visit and whether constantly wearing sunglasses indoors like Bono was a good idea or not. We did book a couple of rehearsals to work on prospective material, confidently predicting which songs would be the designated singles, while we waited for Lester to get back to us with studio dates. Lester maintained our interest by ringing from time to time, mumbling something about having found a producer who had once worked with The Psychedelic Furs, but he couldn’t remember his name. Either that or he’d be flying to Amsterdam to check out prospective studios. He continually assured us that one day we would all meet up and discuss the making of the album. Lester oozed effectiveness and efficiency, and despite time after time phoning to cancel our meetings he’d soften the blow with news of yet another potential studio or top notch sound engineer that he’d been negotiating a fee with.
At first, we were naturally disappointed with Lester’s erratic organisation, but kept our spirits up by meeting in the pub to mull over our future careers. However, after three months of inactivity and endless cancellations we began to feel rather abandoned. We neglected our rehearsals and our equipment began to gather dust. As a band, we drifted apart, rarely speaking or seeing each other for days on end, where previously we had habitually kept in touch. Lucas took a family holiday on the Norfolk Broads and none of us missed him. Lester’s calls grew more and more sporadic, often over a week apart. Each time we were met with the same response – meeting postponed, re-arranged for a later date but not to worry as he had investigated the possibility of recording the album on barge on the Manchester Ship Canal owned by some former bass player from a Monkees tribute band. Or some other bovine excrement.
We gotta get out of this place …
Things came to a head when Lester cancelled an appointment, said he would phone in a week’s time to arrange another get-together, duly didn’t call for over two weeks and then said he couldn’t see us for another fortnight. Millie decided to take matters into her own hand and dialled Lester’s number incessantly, until her call was finally answered by a female voice.
‘Hello, can I help you?’
‘Er, can I speak to Mervyn, please?’
‘Mr Lester’s not here, I’m afraid. He’s gone to Aberystwyth.’
‘Aberystwyth dear. It’s in Wales.’
‘Yes, I know thank you.’
‘May I ask who’s calling?’
‘What’s it in connection with?’
‘I’m sorry? Who am I speaking to please?’
‘I’m Rosemary, Mr Lester’s secretary. Why do you want to speak to Mr Lester?’
‘I’m from Detox Cute. I’m in a band.’
‘Well, dear, would you like to send in a demo and I’ll get Mr Lester to listen to it, when he’s got the time.’
Millie’s face went red and she started shaking.
‘Excuse me!’ she began. ‘I’m signed to your fucking company. I’m actually supposed to be making a record with that wanker. Anyway, what the hell is he doing in Aberystwyth?’
‘I don’t see that that is any business of yours, dear,’ replied Rosemary, coolly. ‘And,’ she added. ‘I don’t care for your language. Mr Lester is a very busy man and you should be grateful that he has even expressed any interest in you at all.’
Millie held the phone out from her face in disbelief, her hand trembling with rage. She tried to slam the phone down. It missed the holder and slipped.
‘Fuck!’ she cursed and replaced the receiver with a slam.
‘I think,’ she started, ‘we’re screwed.’
She relayed the story to me and the realisation dawned that we were going nowhere fast with Mervyn Lester.
‘Listen,’ I said. ‘I’ll hunt around at college to see if I can dig out any facts about Lester and his past dealings. There’s bound to be someone there who has come across him before. After all, he’s claimed to have had hit records.’
‘Ok,’ Millie sighed. ‘See what you can do. I don’t know how we’re going to tell the rest of the band though.’
‘They are going to be so pissed off,’ I suggested. ‘But what else can we do? We could end up going round in circles. I mean, it’s been nearly six months since he offered us the contract, and three since we signed the thing. I wouldn’t mind if we’d carried on gigging or whatever, but I can’t remember the last time we played a note in anger.’
Millie nodded. She looked utterly drained. After the Stella Tortoise debacle this was all we needed.
‘Look,’ I said. ‘I’ll sort it. Call the others together for tomorrow night and we’ll deal with Lester one way or the other.’
A rush and a push and the land that we stand on is ours …
We met in our flat at eight-thirty the following evening without Elliott, who was, hardly surprisingly, out with his work mates. I carefully and slowly explained the situation.
‘It doesn’t look good,’ I said. ‘I can’t see Lester ever getting his shit together and finding us a studio and a producer.’
‘What’s his problem?’ asked Greg. ‘It can’t be that difficult to hire a place.’
‘Don’t know,’ I shrugged. ‘Maybe he hasn’t got forty grand. After all, it looks good on paper but perhaps he was relying on a negotiating downtime.’
‘What about all those hit records he says he’s had?’ demanded Lucas. ‘Surely he must have made some cash from those.’
‘Funny that,’ I said. ‘I tried to look up some info at college on what part he played in those records. From what I can gather he was involved in some kind of partnership in a company that leased the tracks for compilation albums.’
‘Meaning,’ enquired Greg.
‘Well, although it looks on the surface like they were big hits, in actual fact, all Lester and his mate could hope to earn was a tiny percentage of a percentage from total sales. After all, some of those comps have forty or so tracks on them. One fortieth of whatever percentage he could get wouldn’t amount to much.’
‘Bastard!’ exclaimed Lucas. ‘So all along he was kidding us that he would invest thousands of pounds, but in reality he couldn’t even book a two hundred pounds a day demo studio.’
‘I wouldn’t trust Lester to sit the right way round on a toilet, let alone look after our careers,’ said Millie.
‘What a frickin’ waste!’ seethed Lucas. We wait two and a half months to sign the shitty contract and then spend a further three fielding excuses from that bastard!’
‘Yeah, continued Greg. ‘Now, nearly six months later and we haven’t played a single note. What’s more, that twat Elliott has turned into a right office head, and only goes out now with his cretinous office mates!’
It was true that we hardly saw our guitarist anymore. At the weekend he preferred the company of his new girlfriend Natalie, who detested live music and tried to steer our guitarist into going clubbing, spending his money in expensive bars and financing mini holidays all over Europe. Greg and Lucas were broke, having both resigned from their temporary jobs, thinking they would be needed for recording sessions. Millie and I were nearing the end of our college courses, and had exhausted our student loans. It was blatantly obvious that Lester wasn’t going to deliver, but could we afford to wait another year before we could walk from our contract?
‘Maybe we should try gigging again?’ suggested Lucas. ‘After all, we were only legally obliged to record our songs. There wasn’t anything in the contract to prevent us from performing them live.’
‘I agree,’ said Millie, and Greg and I nodded. ‘We can at least stay active while trying to work out a way of resolving the problem of Lester and his non-existent studio time.’
Greg and Lucas were keener to play live than most. They were, essentially, musicians who were more at home performing on stage than painstakingly recording songs note perfectly or having their photograph taken covered in make-up, wearing clothes they felt uncomfortable in.
‘Who’s going to let that clown Elliott know then?’ asked Greg.
‘S’pose we will,’ answered Millie. ‘Let’s arrange a rehearsal for say, next Thursday at 7?’
‘Sounds good,’ nodded Lucas. ‘But what if Bog Head is shagging what’s-her-face?’
‘Tough,’ she replied. ‘I’ll spike him in the balls with one of my stilettos and then he won’t want to play hide the sausage for a few weeks.’
Everyone laughed. It was good to vent our anger out at Elliott. We needed a punch bag or a whipping boy. The guitarist’s constant absence from meetings made him fair game. What’s more, no one liked Natalie. She’d dragged Elliott away from us and so we labelled her Detox Cute’s Yoko Ono. Unbelievably, Elliott was utterly infatuated with her. For someone with his intelligence, she didn’t seem his type. She was large breasted and wide hipped, with a taste for vulgar red lipstick and exceedingly tight mini-skirts. She could be extremely gracious to your face but then particularly unkind when your back was turned. When Elliott first introduced his new love to us, I was extremely alarmed by how her heaving bosom invaded my airspace. It was difficult to know where to look. She regarded musicians as only slightly more worthy than cockroaches and preferred the company of men with small arses and large wallets. At least Greg and Lucas found something in her to laugh about.
‘Body like Baywatch,’ Lucas said, smirking like an eight-year-old. ‘But a face like Crimewatch!’
‘But even you’d still want to shag it!’ Greg retorted.
‘Not without rubber gloves and a protective helmet!’ Lucas concluded.
‘Boy, not only did she fall out the ugly tree,’ sneered Greg, ‘but she must have hit every branch on the way down!’
‘Jealous!’ laughed Millie. ‘Just ‘cos you two haven’t had your end away for ages.’
‘I prefer my own company, thanks,’ said Greg.
‘Yeah, that and Captain Kleenex,’ giggled Lucas.
‘Weurgh!’ spat Millie. ‘Too much information.’
‘Ok children,’ I ordered with mock authority. ‘Let’s get back to the subject of rehearsals, shall we?’
‘How about doing some new demos?’ Millie suggested.
‘Either is good,’ said Greg.
‘Or both,’ added Lucas. ‘Wouldn’t hurt to try.’
‘Right,’ I said. ‘We’ll meet up next Thursday to go through what songs we might want to do as demos. I’ll get onto Street Sounds Studios to see what dates they’ve got free and see if I can wangle a good rate. My mate Clifford from college is the tape op there. He might do us a deal.’
‘Right then,’ said Millie. ‘Let’s do it. The fuckers haven’t beaten us yet.’
‘What about Lester?’ asked Greg.
‘Might as well forget it,’ I said. ‘Who gives a shit. The idiot obviously can’t or won’t record us. And anyway, I’m not hanging around here ‘til I’m eighty-three to find out what he has or hasn’t got planned.’
‘Elliott’s more of a problem,’ Millie said. ‘We’ve got to get him more interested in what we’re doing, and keep him away from that tart Natalie.’
‘I’ll deal with Elliott,’ I said. ‘I’ll let him know we’re going to make every effort to contact record companies and stuff, once we’ve done the demos. Butter him up a bit. Tell him he’s gonna be a star.’
‘Just so long as you keep a straight face,’ grinned Millie.
‘I’ll be okay,’ I said. ‘Elliott needs his ego massaged as much as his dick.’
‘I hope you won’t be doing that as well?’ cried Greg.
‘Nah. That’s Natalie’s department,’ I sneered. ‘Anyway, let’s get going. I’ve had enough of small-time operators. It’s time we sorted our act out and got a decent deal.’
‘See you next week then,’ said Lucas.
‘Fine. Don’t be late. Coming Millie?’
‘Yeah.’ She said, gathering up her coat and bag and pecking Greg and Lucas on the cheek. ‘See you later.’
I didn’t know you wrote such bloody awful poetry …
Quite where we went wrong, I don’t know. Things started well enough, with even Elliott showing up for regular rehearsals. We booked two days at Street Sounds Studios and managed to record four decent tracks without too many hassles. We optimistically burnt handfuls of cds to carry around and dish out to anyone we met who we thought could help. We even played a couple of gigs in Camden, supporting a couple dreadful indie bands, performing their Coldplay-lite ballads to thoroughly bored audiences. We never heard from Lester again, and furthermore we didn’t manage to attract any other label’s interest. Like Peter Fonda’s contemplative words at the end of Easy Rider, it looked like ‘we’d blown it.’ By the time we met Withnail in WaxWerks we were on the verge of calling it a day, having lost Elliott almost permanently to Natalie’s bosom and all our meagre earnings to scurrilous rehearsal studios.