Who do you think you really are?
Millie was asked to join the band on an uncharacteristically balmy spring evening in the beer garden of The Last Post. We’d dragged Jones, our incumbent lead singer, to the pub and plied him with lager before letting him know that we’d placed an ad in the 6th form college for a backing singer. We’d been mulling over the idea of bringing in an additional vocalist to compliment the line-up for ages. Jones was no great shakes as a singer and me, Drew, Russell and Simon would frequently meet behind his back to think of ways to improve the group’s sound. Not that we didn’t like Jones. It’s just that he possessed one of those ten-a-penny ‘bloke’ voices, a monotonous nasal whine which just about stayed in tune but wasn’t distinctive enough to get us noticed.
‘You know what?’ Drew slyly remarked at one of those meetings.
‘No,’ answered Russell.
‘Jones sings in exactly the same way that div Norris Richards goes into his exams.’
‘Without any real notes!’
Some six months and forty-three gigs after we’d formed we were still playing to indifferent audiences in grotty pubs all over the southeast. We called ourselves Stella Tortoise as a lazy pun after a lazy brain-storming session trying to think of a band name that wasn’t (a) crap, (b) utterly crap or (c) a sexual innuendo. Eventually we came to the conclusion that all band names are awful, until success arrives. I mean, The Police? Queen? Even The Band? Only The Beatles as a name didn’t sound dreadful but that had been taken.
Our music fitted in perfectly well to what was being heard in the charts, still a couple of years away from the invasion of Pop Idol and X-Factor; Simon’s chiming, jangly guitar and my simple keyboard lines being tuneful and easy on the ear. Russell drummed effortlessly, a million miles away from the usual pub-rock, tub thumping, biscuit tin bashing. Only Jones stood out like the proverbial sore thumb. As the singer, we’d bullied him into writing the band’s lyrics, although playing through piss poor PA systems meant no one heard what he was singing about, least of all us. Simon didn’t even care what the songs were called; he just had to know what order they were played in. As it turned out, we needn’t have worried about Jones collecting an Ivor Novello, as his lyrics were frightful. Not that it concerned us, until the night Millie strode up to our table in the pub saying she’d seen the ad and wanted an audition.
We invited Millie to the group’s next rehearsal, and got her to sit in and listen while we ran through a few of our numbers. Jones had initially protested that he didn’t want to share the spotlight with another singer, until we persuaded him that if Millie joined, all her friends would come to see us play. The thought of being surrounded by adoring female fans lightened Jones’ mood, and he dutifully set about copying out his lyrics on lined paper in his best handwriting.
After we’d warmed up and Millie had familiarised herself with a couple of tunes, Jones handed her his treasured lyric sheets. Millie took them with a gracious smile and began to read. As her eyes scanned down the page her smile faded, gradually turning into a frown.
‘Well. What d’you think?’ Jones asked.
‘Oh, for heaven’s sake!’ she sighed heavily, waving the lyrics in the air. Look, no offence Jones but no way am I singing, “…sitting at the station … waiting for a train … in the pouring rain … dripping on my brain …”.’
We all laughed, except Jones, whose face turned beetroot purple.
‘Or this,’ she continued, flipping over the page. “…I never know why … I made you cry … each and every time… is it yours or mine …”.’
Jones was clearly not amused.
‘So who made you Paul fucking McCartney, then?’ he retorted.
‘These lyrics are worse than a European Song Contest entry!’ she scoffed.
‘Like to see you do any better,’ Jones challenged her, snatching back the piece of paper.
Millie rose to the bait.
‘Ok,’ she said, standing defiantly, hands on hips. ‘That song you opened up with at your last gig. It’s got a three-note riff and quite a good melody line?’
‘You were singing: “…I don’t know what to do … I can’t get over you … there’s nothing left to say … I miss you every day…”.’
‘Well it’s meaningless cliché, isn’t it?’
‘I don’t know,’ admitted Jones. ‘I just thought all pop songs should be like boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again. They’re all like that aren’t they?’
‘Well I grant you some of Noel Gallagher’s lyrics are primitive to say the least, but yours are only slightly more interesting than Elton John’s!’
‘What’s wrong with Elton John?’ he protested.
Millie stared at him in disbelief.
‘You don’t mean to say you actually like his records?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ blushed Jones. ‘What’s wrong with that?’
‘What’s wrong with that!’ she exploded. ‘Jones, sit down! Listen! You’re nineteen years old. You’ve been to college. So I assume you have some level of intelligence?’
She paused for effect, then let rip.
‘So why the hell would you want to listen to a fucking Elton John record?’
It was the first time we’d heard one of Millie’s diatribes against Elton John. It wouldn’t be the last, and whatsmore, it would turn out to be contagious. Jones didn’t answer.
‘You’re supposed to be rebellious Jones,’ she continued. ‘It’s the one time in you’re life when you could actually do something that might make a difference. You’re not supposed to be listening to songs your grandparents like. Elton John! Honestly, next you’ll be telling me you think Brian May’s hair is actually quite fashionable and Status Quo really now how to wear a tightly front-crease ironed pair of jeans!’
Jones stared at his shoes, thoroughly deflated. The rest of us looked on in admiration. Millie’d certainly livened up rehearsals. Poor Jones didn’t know what had hit him. He’d only joined the band because he fancied the idea of being famous. He’d studied drama at college and joined the local Am Dram society, taking parts in ‘Kiss Me Kate’ and ‘Bugsy Malone’. Trouble was, Jones’s idea of acting involved stomping around the stage, delivering his lines in the loudest voice possible. He’d failed to get into university and had ended up taking a job in a local estate agent’s office, treading water until Stella Tortoise hit the big time. Or at least, that’s what he thought. Millie saw the dejected look in his eyes and kindly decided to offer some encouragement.
‘Try writing about what you actually know, and not what you think you know,’ she said. ‘Have you ever truly been in love, Jones?’
‘Well, there was that girl I met on holiday who lives in Canada,’ he began.
‘Oh yeah,’ interrupted Russell. ‘How convenient that she lives so far away!’
‘Oh fuck off!’ shouted Jones.
‘Hey, chill out everyone,’ I said, looking up from behind my Casio. ‘Come on Jones, she’s given you some food for thought there. If we get some decent songs together, we might jump off this local band roundabout for good.’
‘Yeah, Jon’s right,’ added Drew, who was quietly massaging the neck of his bass in masturbatory fashion. ‘Why don’t the both of you write some lyrics for Jon’s tune and next rehearsal we’ll give them a go?’
‘Fine,’ she said. ‘I’m up for it.’
‘How’s about it Jones?’ I asked. ‘Then we’ll use whoever comes up with the best ones.’
‘S’pose,’ he mumbled.
‘Great,’ I said. ‘Let’s call it a day and meet up next week. Ok Millie?’
Millie looked at me with her deep, brown eyes and smiled, as if to thank me for taking her side. It was the first time she’d actually paid me some attention since she’d joined the group. Incredibly, I’d not noticed how stunning she was, underneath her floppy fringe and sixties, pillbox hat. The prettiest Buckton Heath girls could have easily slipped into episodes of Hollyoaks or Home And Away without anyone noticing, their blonde, bland looks merging amongst all the others. Millie was different. She had the look of an iconic poster-popstar, like Kate Bush or Clare Grogan with a shade of Audrey Hepburn’s kookiness about her. I’d tingled when she’d spoken to me, and had to hurriedly compose myself. As we packed away our gear I scolded myself for getting excited about the attention she’d given me. No, Millie was out of bounds. For one thing, I didn’t think she’d ever fancy me. Secondly, if we did get it on it might upset the balance of the band. And thirdly, there was Kenny.
I like your poetry but I hate your poems …
Kenny was Millie’s boyfriend, an aspiring beatnik three years her senior, forever quoting Kerouac and Holden Caulfield. He always wore charcoal black jeans and matching roll neck sweater, tortoiseshell-rimmed sunglasses and over the past few months had grown the wispiest, bum-fluff goatee beard. He always carried a baccy tin wherever he went, stuffed to the brim with rolling tobacco, Rizzlas and extremely poor quality weed. Kenny also liked to think of himself as a bit of a philosopher. Having failed to be accepted for a degree course in the subject he was forced to settle for Sociology. Once in receipt of his grants and loans, however, he simply stayed at home. He’d hoodwinked the academic authorities for two and a half years before they realised he hadn’t completed any coursework. He’d been unceremoniously ejected and since survived by doing odd jobs for cash for various tradesmen. Kenny also preoccupied himself with combing his hair forward and collecting as many tobacco-smoking pipes as possible. Millie and her 6th form friends loved him, amusing them with his latest pipe and his misguided philosophies on life.
‘I wonder if Jean-Paul Belmondo knows he is dead?’ he would thoughtfully say, not realising his mistake.
‘What, that French actor?’ one of Millie’s friends would reply.
‘No!’ exclaimed Kenny, ‘the Existentialist philosopher who had a thing with Simone De Beauvoir.’
‘Wasn’t she the one in Grease?’ teased another.
‘Excuse me’, interrupted Kenny, impatiently. ‘Can we get back to the subject of the meaning of being?’
‘Ah, Monty Python!’ Millie’s mates would chorus in unison, sensing Kenny becoming agitated, as no one appeared to take him seriously.
Millie would hug Kenny and whisper gently in his ear.
‘You’re confused,’ she said, squeezing his arm. ‘Belmondo was an actor, Satre was the philosopher who had it away with De Beauvoir.’
During the first meeting Millie had wrapped herself around Kenny for security. We all vaguely knew him, but we didn’t move in the same circles. In fact, in typical small-town, small-mined mentality, we avoided Kenny like the plague. Not that we didn’t like him. If truth be told we actually thought he was a half decent bloke. It’s just that Kenny preferred the company of our rival band: Fuzztone.
I’m just a jealous guy …
In a nutshell, Stella Tortoise and Fuzztone didn’t get on. We were worlds apart, both musically and socially. Fuzztone were scruffy, unkempt and deliberately careless on stage. Their songs opened with sloppy intros, were perforated with badly timed guitar solos and finally condemned with unintelligible singing. Their drummer, Marco, couldn’t, or wouldn’t, keep time and hit his snare whenever he felt like it. On bass, Craig’s idea of stage presence was to sit on the floor, cross-legged with his head bowed, looking like he was trying to suck himself. What Fuzztone did possess, though, was a palpable aura of don’t-care-won’t-care rock star attitude and they attracted a predominately young, male crowd. Stella Tortoise, on the other hand, dressed up for a gig, and had songs with solid, recognizable structures. We had poppy, commercial tunes and attracted both male and female audiences.
All the members of Fuzztone could actually play but preferred not to display their dexterity on stage. We, on the other hand, tried our best but weren’t all that competent, substituting enthusiasm and energy for ability. They begrudged us our pop songs and we envied their cool. As such, the purist’s preferred act was Fuzztone, but the kids favoured Stella Tortoise. We played The Beatles to their Stones: us the Stone Roses, they the Happy Mondays. We could have, and should have, gigged together. It would have made a fantastic night. But whenever the idea was floated, no one could agree on who should headline. So we kept our distance while secretly charting each other’s progress. When news spread that a Fuzztone fan’s girlfriend was about to join local adversaries Stella Tortoise, it was like a Tottenham Hotspur footballer packing up his bags and heading across London to join bitter rivals Arsenal. Unsurprisingly, Kenny was not amused.
(You) Thrill Me (To Death) …
Millie came to the next rehearsal armed with a bundle of lyrics. We’d packed her off with a crudely recorded cassette of one of our rehearsals and she’d obviously been busy. For my half-written song she’d come up with the title, ‘You Thrill Me To Death’. That in itself was provocative, unlike the torrent of ‘Oh Girls’ or ‘Baby It’s Yous’ that flowed from Jones’s pen. On a count of four from Russell, Simon strummed the opening chords, Drew and I followed him in and then Millie began to sing.
“…You’re such a fake, I’ve seen before, you don’t care what you said … punk-star dreams on a graffiti wall, we’ll be famous when we’re dead…“
Simon stopped playing and the rest of us hit the brakes.
‘Wow!’ he said, grinning widely. ‘That’s great.’
‘Don’t stop,‘ said Russell, irritatingly tapping his sticks. ‘I wanna hear some more. Ready?’’
Millie nodded and we started up again.
“…Innocence can’t be learned, to find the answer, you’d better just suck and see …”
Sensing we were on to something, Russell increased the tempo and the entire character of the song altered before our ears. As if being hit with a sudden increase of Serotonin, the mood of the band picked up to a new level. Millie began to swing along at the mic stand and the rest of us found ourselves moving in unison to the beat. Our original song, a competent enough pop tune with a rudimentary chorus was suddenly given a new lease of life. Millie’s voice added melody whereas Jones’s plodding delivery only stifled any semblance of a tune. We started to sound like a band with real potential, not just one of a plethora of run-of-the-mill no hopers from some countryside backwater.
Buoyed by the success of ‘Thrill Me’ we eagerly set about attacking our other songs. Millie had replaced Jones’s rhyming dictionary prose with a mixture of Rotten-esque acerbic wit, mordant Morrissey-like humour and overt Adam Ant sexual overtones.
At first she patiently coached Jones through each new set of lyrics, showing him where the inflections and accents should go. But it soon became clear that he was struggling to cope, leaving Millie no choice but to take over the lead part.
With each rehearsal, Millie’s confidence grew, as did her proliferation of new lyrics. It was somewhat inevitable that Jones’s role in Stella Tortoise began to diminish. Furthermore as Millie found her range she began altering each song’s key to suit her voice, something Jones truly struggled with. He’d been an uncomplicated singer, solid and reliable, which had served us well on our journey from shit-heap to hell-hole in the local area. But with Millie on board he’d found himself relegated to the role of backing singer, coming in on the odd chorus where his limited range permitted. Jones appeared less than happy with the role reversal and after a couple of gigs standing glumly in the shadows banging a tambourine he announced his departure from the group.
This could be the last time …
With our sudden improvement and the renewed vigour within the band there had been some animated talk of us going for it big-time: gigs out of town, even in London. We thought we could take some money and record a demo to send to record labels. Even the promise of better gigs and a day in a recording studio couldn’t persuade Jones to stay on. As a tribute and to show our appreciation we decided to perform one last gig with both Jones and Millie singing. Millie agreed to do backing vocals on some of our older numbers, with Jones’ lyrics. All the new songs we’d worked on, with Millie supplying total re-writes, would be played in the second half of the set.
“…Out with the old and in with the new…” was the by-line the Buckton Heath Mirror gave their little spelling, grammatical and error ridden publicity article. “…Local indie band Stella Dallas will be waving goodbye to singer Jones Johns, (38) and saying hello to new lead vocalist Sillie Ambersol, (17), when the band bring their special bland of indie/pop to The Lost Post on Thursday at 7.30pm. The group, all in their twenties, hope to follow in the footsteps of town legend Adrain Eveses, when they record a demo tap later this month, which they will send to London. Doors open at 7pm. Entry £1.00… Doors open at 8pm.”
Well, they only got a few things wrong, so we couldn’t complain too much. One person who did protest, however, was Kenny. Seeing Millie surrounded on stage by blokes, being looked at by even more blokes, did his head in. What’s more, our new sound, bolstered by Millie’s song-writing skills, fully underlined how much we’d progressed. All this proved too much for Kenny and we found out later that he’d tried to make a point of leaving, by pulling on his coat in an exaggerated manner and slamming down his beer bottle. Regrettably for Kenny, Millie and the rest of us were too busy basking in our newfound status of local-paper celebrities to notice.
He was my boyfriend …
As we set up our gear at the following rehearsal I tried to gauge Kenny’s reaction to the gig from Millie. She’d arrived in a strangely sombre mood and hadn’t said much.
‘He thought we were shit,’ she said tersely, unravelling a length of mic cable.
‘Really?’ I replied, raising my eyebrows in mock surprise. ‘How’s that, then?’
‘Oh, he reckoned we were better with Jones. Said we’d lost our edge.’
‘Well, he must’ve been the only person there who didn’t like it.’
Millie stared at the floor in silence.
‘Look,’ I continued. ‘I don’t want to be rude. He is your boyfriend after all. But if that’s what he said, then he is being a bit childish.’
Millie looked up at me, her eyes glazed and looking tearful.
‘Kenny and I don’t go out anymore,’ she said, in a low voice.
‘Oh. Sorry. Aren’t I the arsehole? Put my foot right in it there, haven’t I?’
‘It’s OK,’ she sighed. ‘He was becoming a bit of a pain anyway.’
‘The old philosophy routine was getting very tired,’ she explained. ‘And all my friends had started taking the piss out of him.’
‘Yeah, but why should that bother Kenny? He’s one of the most thick-skinned people around.’
‘That’s not all,’ she said, plugging in her mic. ‘When his mates from Fuzztone found out he’d been to a Stella Tortoise gig they disowned him entirely.’
‘Yeah, but they’re a bunch of tossers. ‘No loss there.’
Millie blinked. A single trickle of tear slid down the side of her nose and dropped off her top lip. I resisted all temptation to wipe her face, but dug into my pocket for a tissue.
‘Thanks,’ she smiled, dabbing her eyes gently. ‘Trouble is, Kenny blamed it all on me. ‘We had a blazing row in the pub in front of everyone. He said he’d lost all his friends ‘cos I’d joined a fucking pop band, and stormed off, telling everyone we were finished.’
I was stunned. I didn’t think being in a band could cause so many problems.
‘Hey, if it’s any hassle,’ I assured her, ‘you don’t have to stay with us.’
As soon as the words came out of my mouth I cursed myself. Don’t be a twat, Dempsey, this girl’s gold dust. What’s more, the others would never forgive you if you let her slip from our grasp.
‘Oh no, I don’t want to quit,’ she said. ‘I get the feeling this band could be the start of something special.’
I nodded in agreement.
‘Do you feel it as well, Jon?’ she asked, shyly.
I wasn’t sure if it was the band, Millie or both, but since her arrival I’d been looking forward to rehearsals with a greater zest than before. Initially, I’d put it down to how much better we sounded. But underneath I was convinced there was more to it than that. I began to realise that I was falling for this delightfully attractive, auburn-haired teenager with shit-loads of attitude and an uncanny way with lyrics. If we carried on at this rate we’d soon be a pretty formidable writing team. Maybe not quite Jagger/Richards or Lennon/McCartney just yet, but there was plenty of time to develop.
‘Oh yeah. I feel it too,’ I replied. ‘We’ve definitely got something. You never know, one day, we might be seeing Dempsey/Anderson or Anderson/Dempsey listed as joint songwriters on the first Stella Tortoise album?’
‘Hmmmm,’ just one thing though,’ she hesitated.
‘Stella Tortoise. I mean as a name. It’s not great, is it?’
‘You mustn’t give anyone who is reviewing anything you do the chance for a bit of lazy journalism,’ she continued.
‘Well, you know that band, Standard Lamp?’
‘All the reviews they get are things like ‘Standard fare from Standard Lamp’ or ‘not up to Standard’. Things like that. I could imagine Stella Tortoise getting write-ups like ‘slow, plodding tunes from the Tortoise.’
I nodded. I could see her point.
‘So any thoughts of what you think would be a better name?’ I asked her.
‘Oh well I’m a bit embarrassed,’ she said, ‘but when I was younger I used to play with my dolls and pretend they were a band. You know. Girly stuff, like Josie and the Pussycats or Jem?’
I didn’t, but encouraged her to go on.
‘Well I called my little dolly lead singer Detox Cute and the backing band were the Beauty Junkies.’
‘Wow! Detox. Cute. And. The. Beauty. Junkies!’ I said, slowly and deliberately. ‘Hey that’s pretty good. Certainly better than Big Willy and The Gonads or The Curly Ticklers.’
‘You idiot’, she laughed. ‘So you think it’s okay?’
‘Okay? I think it’s brilliant!’
She gave me a hug and pecked me on the cheek. I half squeezed her in response, afraid of going further.
‘Hey!’ called out Russell, from behind his drum-kit. ‘Will you two stop making love over there. There’s rehearsing to do.’
Blushing, we let go of each other and busied ourselves with our equipment. I wasn’t sure how much of our conversation the others had overheard, but there were plenty of nods and winks all round. However, all the guys agreed that Millie had once again come up with a fantastic band name – bright, edgy and certainly different from the mainstream.
The rest of the day passed as a blur. Although I did my best to play in time and in tune my thoughts were elsewhere. Had Millie split from Kenny for good, or would there be reconciliation? My earlier doubts about a relationship upsetting the harmony of the band resurfaced. I tried to tell myself that I wasn’t Millie’s type – she was happy-go-lucky with a highly individual dress sense and a wicked sense of humour. I was a self-taught cynic, with a laconic tongue and view of the world largely set in the mid 1960s, before the advent of celebrity culture and the hero worship of soap stars. I decided to let the dust settle between Kenny and Millie, and continue to enjoy the band as it was. After all, it wouldn’t be long before we would be on Top Of The Pops, would it?