Dave was unsure. The irony was, to those who knew Dave and considered themselves to be his friends, was that this was the defining thing about Dave that was actually certain. Of this, Dave’s friends were quite sure.
If you saw Dave in the street – and plenty did – he was a recognizable figure in his familiar Gabardine coat, unfortunate trousers and shrill, twill hat – you might mistake him for someone who was very sure. Of that, you could be certain. Although mistaken.
A certain amount of uncertainty tainted Dave’s daily life, from knowing which way to start his day, (tea, cornflakes and a scan of the Daily Multitude) or to end his day, (a scan of the Evening Fortitude, cornflakes, tea).
You might mistake Dave for someone who had a purpose as he purposely trod the familiar pavements of Workingtown, to the shoe shop where he worked as assistant to the Saturday girl, Chloe, on Sundays and as Head of Shoelaces every other day of the week – (Wednesday’s aside – Wednesday being the other Saturday girl who only worked on Thursday’s and held a soft spot for Dave, just under her left cheek).
You’d be mistaken for thinking Dave had a purpose beyond Wednesday. In fact, Wednesday’s aside, Dave couldn’t wait for Thursday. Thursday was payday. Payday meant Dave could tread purposely across the street after work and buy flowers for Wednesday. However, by the time the following Thursday came around the flowers would have wilted. They lasted less than a week. You’d think Dave would know this. You think this was one thing, repeated as often as it was, he’d be pretty darned clued up on.
Dave had recently endured a little bad fortune and had been ridiculed violently in both the local and national press. Dave had appeared on the unfathomably popular reality television programme ‘Business Bear Cavern’ – a show so awful even Simon Cowell had called for it to be terminated. The premise promised a judging panel comprising top talent from the top table of the top corporate and commercial community considering business ideas from bumbling, filibustering flibbertigibbets who couldn’t design an empty paper bag if an empty paper bag was placed over their heads.
Dave had invented an app which promised the often sought after Shangri-la paradise of double-decker bus passengers – the guaranteed empty double-seat. Dave’s app worked by accurately predicting, when each top deck double-seat was occupied by one person, which passenger would get off at the very next stop, thereby guaranteeing a far more pleasant journey than being squashed like a raw turnip in a basket full of tinned beans against a man with an unfortunate-smelling overcoat.
Regrettably for Dave, just as he’d been feeling certain that one of the bears in the Bear’s Cavern would back his fanciful notion to the tune of twenty-five thousand pounds his world came shuddering to a halt when the tallest bear, Tracy Treacey, the treacle queen of Tring, firstly figuratively and then laterally literally, laughed in Dave’s face. From that moment on, the other bears followed suit and Dave, in his best and only suit could only follow the other losers off the show and off into the night, in the taxi of shame.
In fact, if things had turned out differently for Dave in the past, his life would certainly not be so wearisome. That much was sure. For Dave knew, that despite mankind’s development over millions of years, despite advancement in technology, hygiene, philosophy, psychology, herbal medicine, Yoga, mathematics, art, engineering, literature, sports science, space travel, cyber technology, diet advice, the evolution of haircuts and Chelsea boots, of the electric guitar and synthesisers, of Descartes, Shakespeare, James Joyce, James Dean, James Dyson, James Bond and Jamie Oliver and Oliver James – a world in which we can propel a man into the outer reaches of the atmosphere and land him on the Moon, a world in which the Pyramids and Stonehenge can be built, a world in which it’s possible to grow a human ear on the back of a mouse, with all these achievements and all this brain power and artistic talent, no-one, under any circumstances, in any way, shape or form, given legal assistance from the most powerful and cunning lawyer this side of OJ Simpson, given money the amount of would make Bill Gates weep, given the kind of political power the combined forces of Russia, the US and The Isle of Man could only dream about, nothing can ever stop another person from being a complete and utter arsehole.
Dave was sure.
Self Released Buy: Stream Charlie Darling of Les Bicyclettes De Belsize is what one might call a purveyor of fine indiepop Christmas tunes. He is so adept at it, that I imagine him running a small …
And so … I’m not going to post any more chapters from my failed soggy dishcloth of a novel ‘Paul King Stole My Haircut.’
While it has been fun to re-visit the inner most depths of my brain from a decade and a half ago I realise now, reading the rest of the chapters, that ultimately, my book is sh*t.
All those agents and publishers were correct … it isn’t worthy of re-cycled toilet paper and, to be honest, I don’t share the feelings and thoughts (or bad language) that I had at the turn of the century.
I was immature, bitter, tired and at the end of my tether with music, musicians, managers, promoters, sound engineers and anyone I’d come across in the music business. It had swallowed me up and spat me out and I was exhausted.
Today, I find solace in like-minded, friendly folk who are happy to listen to my songs and even play along sometimes.
The phrase ‘Paul King stle my haircut’ will always remain a memory from my times in a trash/pop band utterly out of its depth with a stoned producer who truly f*cked us up. But, as ABC sung, that was then and this is now …
I’m off to write the memoirs of Uncle George …
We were contemplating buying another beer from The Anchor to share between us, counting out the coppers from Millie’s purse, when her mobile rang. She stared at the facia, but I could tell by the way she screwed up her nose she didn’t recognise the number. As she answered, all I could hear was her end of the conversation.
‘Oh, hi Splash. How are you?
‘No, we’re just taking it easy. Having a lunchtime beer. Where? Muswell Hill? Sure. Yeah hang on, hang on.’
She fumbled in her bag for a biro and bit off the top.
‘About an hour,’ she chewed, hastily scribbling blue ink on the back of her hand. ‘Make it two. Fine. But what about…? All right. If you’re sure? Ok. Bye.’
‘Well?’ I asked.
‘That was Splash.’
‘You don’t say. What does he want?’
‘He’s been released on bail. So he’s ok. Says his brief is whipping up some case against the heavy-handed nature of the police at the party, so he reckons he’ll be let off with a warning.’
‘Great. Anything else?’
‘He wants to know if we’re up to coming to his studio in Muswell Hill.’
‘Yep. He says he’s got a bit of free time before he has to go to court to sort out last night. He says we may as well get going with a bit of recording.’
‘Fair enough. Haven’t got any gear with us though.’
‘No need. Splash says he’s got everything and more at his place.’
‘Wonderful. Makes a change from bundling stuff up and down stairs and into and out of backs of cars,’ I smiled.
‘Yeah,’ Millie agreed. ‘And how about that for getting things done. Not hanging around I mean. Six months with Lester and we achieved zip. Five minutes with Splash and we’re in the studio already.’
‘That’s Withnail for you and his way of sorting stuff I guess.’
‘He should run for Prime Minister,‘ laughed Millie. ‘Then we’d see results.’
‘Can’t imagine that,’ I retorted. ‘A hippy in number ten!’
‘No, s’pose not,’ she giggled. ‘More’s the pity.’
‘Well, are you fit?’ I asked.
‘And raring to go,’ she said.
We set down our empty beer glasses and set off down Jubilee Walk in the direction of Waterloo Bridge. We were conditioned to doing things on the hoof. The music business never ran like clockwork, so we were always prepared to change our plans at the drop of a hat. Better still, don’t make any plans. This is what undid Elliott, who was always scheduling this, that and the other. Somehow we had to get to Muswell Hill, via a series of buses and a lot of walking. Millie stared at Splash’s address scrawled on the back of her hand. 18 Princes Mews, just off the Broadway. Once over Waterloo Bridge and up to Aldwych, we could catch the 91 to Crouch End. From there, we could hop on a W3 to Muswell Hill. It was hardly rock ‘n’ roll. It may have been adventurous for Cliff Richard, off on his groovy, sixties summer holiday with a bunch of happening chicks and crazy hep cats. But the streets of Athens and Paris couldn’t match a grubby London bus winding around King’s Cross, past the grotty Caledonian Road and squeezing through the choc-a-bloc streets of Hornsey Rise. No, all we had was some overweight mothers with even more obese, burger scoffing children, an old man with more snot on his chin than a two-year-old and a bunch of kids spitting and swearing and talking about the latest Nu Metal band from America.
Hi Fidelity …
Waiting for the W3 bus in Crouch End, I thought about how much I hated this particular part of London, with its trendy bars, coffee shops and restaurants. It had designs on being the next Islington, but also wanted to retain its leafy, suburban décor. It was ‘C’ list celebrity heaven or hell, depending on which way you looked at it. Cast members of daytime soaps were an easy spot for any visiting tourist, as were low-grade, alternative comedians, first time novelists and one-hit wonder pop stars. This was Nick Hornby territory, a faux province where seemingly anyone could hold down a crappy job and yet still afford the rent of a large, Victorian conversion. In addition, you needed PhD level intelligence to engage in conversation extolling the virtues of a long-lost blue-vinyl b-side twelve-inch gatefold-sleeve copy of some record released on a long since obliterated indie label by an even more obscure New York Greenwich Village eleven-piece blues/jazz ensemble in 1973. Oh, and with a typeset error on the first thousand printed. Only to be found in the record outlets of Uzbekistan. On a Thursday. In July. No wonder Hornby’s characters always had such trouble with women. Perhaps the inside leg measurement of the bass player who holds the record for the largest plectrum collection in the Western civilized world wasn’t actually that interesting? Eh, Nick?
The bus took an age climbing steep Park Road and onto The Broadway. It creaked and groaned and rumbled and farted its way up the sharp and precipitous hill, like an asthmatic struggling for breath. Our knuckles whitened as we tightly grabbed the bus’s handrails and rocked side to side with each twist and turn.
Eventually, we reached the summit and the bus pulled in at the roundabout on Muswell Hill Broadway. Shaken from the ride, we gingerly jumped out and began searching for Splash’s road.
We found Prince’s Mews tucked away behind the main shopping area. The road consisted of a single row of tall, Elizabethan terraced houses that backed onto Alexandra Park. As we walked down, I noted that numbers 2 to 16 were all in immaculate condition, painted pristine white or beige, with flawless topiary and spotless lawns. Many had colourful hanging baskets or flowerbeds marked yellow and green with the early buds of spring daffodils. We gazed through each bay window as we stepped along the cracked pavement: one with an impressive library of leather bound books, another resplendent in wicker furniture, a third minimalist, all chrome and pastel shades, like a branch of Ikea. Gleaming family saloons or top-of-the-range coupes were parked outside each house: Peugeots, Audis, a silver-grey Mini Cooper and even a low-slung, blood-red Daimler.
Our house, is a very, very, very fine house …
We almost missed number 18. For a start, we’d become phased by the décor in some of the buildings and hadn’t kept count as we passed each door. More incredibly, Splash’s house appeared to be attempting to camouflage itself from the outside world. Like a smaller version of Wimbledon Centre Court, the building was covered head to toe in dark green ivy. A cherry tree, as if praying for Abraham Lincoln to swing his axe put it out of its misery leaned awkwardly at forty-five degrees in the front garden. A rusty, purple Beetle was parked haphazardly outside, with one front wheel up on the kerb. Crazy surfer logo and ‘Keep Music Live’ stickers blanketed its back window. Disregarded parking tickets were wedged unceremoniously under the front windscreen wiper, and at least two of the tyres were flat and bald. Looking back to the house, the low, front garden wall had long since surrendered to neglect and lay crumbled in bits all over the lawn. Millie and I looked at each other apprehensively and simultaneously breathed in deeply. We tightly clasped each other’s hand, hearts thumping audibly, and trod nervously up the front path. I noticed in trepidation a parched notice fixed to a misty glass panel on the door. It read: “Burglers, Salesmen and Religious Cults … We Are Armed And Alarmed … So FUCK OFF!”
I poked my finger at the letterbox and peered inside. Nothing. I leant my ear against the door. Deathly silence.
‘Go on, knock,’ encouraged Millie, prodding me in the back.
‘Are you sure this is the right address?’ I asked. ‘It looks like the house from The Munsters.’
‘Perfectly sure,’ said Millie, checking the blurred biro scrawl on her hand. ‘Number 18.’
I examined the door again, searching for any sign of a bell. I couldn’t see one so reluctantly decided to knock. Once. Twice. A third time.
‘Can’t hear anything,’ I said.
I rapped hard, this time ripping a piece of skin from my knuckle.
‘Fuck! Where is the bastard?’ I hissed, sucking the blood from my hand.
‘Call him,’ suggested Millie.
‘Oh yeah, I seethed. ‘Like who wants to look like a dickhead shouting ‘Splash, Splash’ at the top of his voice on a Sunday afternoon?
‘God you’re useless!’ she huffed, picking up a large piece of broken brick from the path and aiming a throw at one of the windows.
She missed and the brick fell harmlessly into the mass of ivy.
‘Crap!’ she cursed, and began searching for another missile.
‘Hey, wait a sec!’ I called. ‘I can hear movement in there. Sounds like someone’s unlocking the door.’
The door slowly creaked open, and Splash poked his head around the side. He looked awful – unshaven and bleary-eyed, and I noticed with some alarm that when he yawned two of his front teeth were missing. His trendy French cut lay flattened against his temple and without his Calvin Klein specs his eyes seemed smaller and less welcoming. He was dressed in a shabby bathrobe, all green and yellow stripes like a redundant deckchair abandoned for the winter on Brighton beach. I gawped in disbelief, while Millie averted her eyes from the front of his dressing gown, which had flapped open in the breeze and revealed rather more of Splash’s anatomy than she’d expected. He didn’t speak, but gestured we came in. Millie coughed and pointed below.
‘Er, Splash!’ she said, alerting him to his state of undress.
‘Oops!’ he said, fumbling with his dressing gown. ‘Better just rearrange the furniture.’
Here’s looking at you …
We trooped inside and Splash slammed the door closed. We were met with the same eerie feeling I imagined the young Pevensie children had got, walking through Professor Kirke’s wardrobe and stumbling out into Narnia. Only in Muswell Hill there was no lamppost, virgin snow or chocolate box landscape. It was more Twilight Zone than rose-tinted children’s fiction. The front hall was dark and murky, as Splash had banished the natural daylight by covering the glass-fronted door with a thick Indian throw. A garish 70’s carpet, designed with swirls of red, purple and diarrhoea brown Millie, threw up clouds of dust as we trod along. A selection of tatty, cult film posters were stapled to the walls: Blow Up, A Clockwork Orange, Betty Blue, Kes and Quadrophenia. Splash saw me staring at each one as we passed.
‘Tried to get Phil Daniels to sign that one,’ he said, pointing at the mod-flick print. ‘But I’ve never been able to get his number. Or his agent’s.’
I gazed at the row of actors on the poster, some now famous, but back in 1979 all young and still wet-behind-the-ears.
‘Look,’ I said to Millie. ‘There’s Toyah. And Leslie Ash. And that bloke out of The Bill.’
‘And Sting?’ she noticed.
‘Don’t talk to me about Sting,’ he snarled.
‘Everything that’s wrong with the music business today can be applied to Sting,’ he said.
Splash scratched his hair.
‘Cos he’s perfect.’
‘Every note is played exactly on time, at the right speed, at the right pitch. His songs are played by the best musicians on the highest fees and recorded and mixed to within an inch of their lives.’
Splash waved his hands in annoyance.
‘So where’s the imperfection?’ he asked. ‘Where’s the attitude, the argument? Why isn’t Sting angry?’
‘Cos he’s got billions of pounds in the bank and he can shag for hours on end,’ remarked Millie, dryly.
‘Good point,’ laughed Splash. ‘But what I’m saying is, what happened to all those quirky little mistakes or unpredictable noises that used to make listening to records so enjoyable?’
I didn’t know, and neither did Millie. But it seemed as Splash was intent on finding out and possibly doing something about it.
‘We must put imperfection back into music,’ he announced proudly, as if he’d just delivered a series of measures designed to cut down on street crime.
‘Oh that’ll be easy then,’ teased Millie. ‘What with Dempsey’s keyboard playing!’
‘Hey!’ I protested. ‘I’m not that bad!’
‘Chill folks,’ grinned Splash. ‘Come on. Drink anyone?’
We nodded and Splash led us through a yellowy door hanging delicately by a single, rusty hinge into the kitchen. We were met by a sight lifted directly from the scenes of Withnail And I: a sink piled high with unwashed crockery, a cooker more charcoal black than pillowcase white and a waste bin sprouting the kind of organic material and plant-life that would give Alan Titchmarsh wet dreams for a month. The kitchen was so gut wrenchingly dirty I began to choke.
‘You all right?’ asked Splash, gently thumping me on the back.
‘Yeah, fine,’ I spluttered, wiping water from my eyes.
‘Fancy a cuppa?’ he asked, bravely delving into the pile of crockery without the aid of rubber gloves.
‘Er … ‘
I wanted to say ‘yes please’, but when I saw Splash pulling out a mug stained with matter beggaring description, I quickly shook my head.
‘No thanks, I’m fine,’ I coughed, frantically diving into Millie’s bag for some bottled water.
‘Sure?’ he asked.
‘Sure,’ I said, sipping noisily. ‘Anyway,’ quickly changing the subject. ‘You wanted to see us?’
‘That’s right,’ said Splash, as he creaked open one of the taps to fill his mug with some brown looking water. ‘Come next door and see my studio.’
Like eager puppies we dutifully followed Splash to the next room, relieved to be escaping from the ‘swamp’. The studio door was swathed in sticky, VIP backstage passes. Millie and I had one such precious item of our own: a lime green pass to the Lighthouse Family at Wembley Arena, courtesy of our brief time with Mervyn Lester. We couldn’t stand the Lighthouse Family, with their wishy-washy-housewife-friendly-tank-top-knitting-noodle-eating-wallpaper-paste music, but a chance to soak up the atmosphere backstage at Wembley was too good an opportunity to be missed.
Splash had clearly been around a bit more than us. There were Access All Areas passes to The Manic Street Preachers, Pink Floyd, Coldplay, Lou Reed, Fat Boy Slim, Joe Strummer; R.E.M., Madonna, as well as The Brits, Reading and V2 festivals. When he opened the door and beckoned us forward, we felt we were leaving behind horrible old sepia Kansas and entering the MGM Technicolor land of Oz.
The room was spotless – dirt-free and uncontaminated by anything brown, grey or mucus coloured. The walls were painted clinical white, which gave it the look of a scientific laboratory run by a James Bond villain. In high contrast, jet-black equipment stood piled around the room. Bright yellow, red and green lights flashed intermittently on and off, like a mobile disco in full swing.
In the furthest corner, a silver, flat computer screen glowed proudly in position, primed for action. Splash motioned towards two high-backed, office director’s chairs, suggesting we take a seat. We duly obliged, absorbing the wondrous sight, which bore more of a resemblance to the inside of a spacecraft than a home studio.
I wasn’t particularly technically minded, but even I could recognise that Splash owned all the latest and most impressive gear: compressors, noise gates, delay units, some with flashing green lights, some with flashing red, and panels with an imposing selection of buttons either pushed in or pushed out and knobs pointing in all directions.
‘I’m running Logic off the Mac there,’ he said, pointing at the computer screen. ‘And I’ve got Pro Tools installed with tons and tons of RAM. Believe me, this little lot could set off a nuclear warhead!’
I nodded, nervously, lost for words. For a start I had very little idea how to work any of these things and secondly, I didn’t really care. Millie cared even less. I wrote songs using a crappy Casio keyboard and she scribbled lyrics with a biro on scraps of paper. It was the most we could do to type out chord sheets for the rest of the band on Microsoft Word. All this equipment wouldn’t have seemed out of place on the Starship Enterprise. It was all a bit too much for us to take in. Still, Splash seemed as proud as punch of his collection of toys and started to mess around, pressing as many buttons as he could. Things whirred and things beeped and things lit up. Millie glanced at me with a look of astonishment and bewilderment. I finally found my voice and plucked up the courage to ask Splash a question.
‘All this gear must have cost a bomb,’ I suggested.
‘Well,’ said Splash, slowly and deliberately. ‘Remember that big bullion raid in the City a couple of years ago, on the day of the London Marathon. The one where the gang tried to escape by disguising themselves as athletes but ran into trouble when one of them tripped up Jimmy Saville and they were all set upon by angry runners and a bloke dressed as a giant lobster?’
‘Mmmm, kind of. But they never found the money did they?’
‘No,’ said Splash, with a big grin all over his face.
I felt the hand of fear rubbing the back of my neck. Oh shit. I knew it. Splash was somehow connected with the criminal fraternity and his studio had been financed out of the proceeds of an armed robbery, albeit by improbably attired joggers. Splash saw my face turn grey and gave a huge belly laugh.
‘You think I had something to do with it?’ he asked, still chuckling.
‘Nnnnno,’ I stammered. ‘Not at all.’
‘Well in a round about way I did.’
‘What? You drove the getaway car?’
‘In a running race!’
‘All right then. You pretended you were one of those people who hand out bottles of water and Mars Bars?’
‘No, stupid. I did the music for the film that Channel Four made of the incident last year!’
I was hit by a wave of relief, the kind you get when you find there’s a substitute teacher for the afternoon’s maths lesson when know you haven’t done your homework.
‘Oh, well, you know, I didn’t think you were the bank robber type,’ I blustered, trying my best to act nonchalantly.
‘No,’ replied Splash, sarcastically, prodding furiously at his keyboard.
All of a sudden things started to whir and buzz and flash their little lights even faster and Splash was off, like Captain Kirk, in full command of the operation.
‘Here,’ he said. ‘I’ve got to defrag the Mac. It’s going to take a while, so let me go off and get dressed and then I’ll play you a few bits my of work.’
Splash disappeared into another room and closed the door behind him. Millie and I were speechless. I gazed at all the flashing lights in a transcendental state. If Splash had been inclined to start his own religion or cult and make a million dollars, he could have started right there and then. I’d certainly have been one of his first disciples. Oh worship the god of Akai and blessed are the children of Apple Macintosh. Millie was about to whisper something in my ear when Splash reappeared, thankfully dressed in Levi’s, Gola trainers and a khaki sweatshirt. He smiled. Good. He’d put his teeth in. Suddenly, he didn’t seem quite so threatening. We began to relax and sat further back in our chairs. Splash reached into a small drawer by his desk and pulled out a selection of cds. He fed the first one into his Playstation, picked up the handset and selected ‘play’.
‘This one’s Phillipe Muscadet,’ he said. Not his real name obviously. He’s a Belgian songwriter. Good little tunes but a strange accent.’
‘Great. Let’s hear it.’
We listened intently to the track, nodding politely. Muscadet sang in a low, gravelly voice, reminiscent of Serge Gainsbourg but without the wit or sentiment. He sang about ‘lurve’ and ‘oh girrrl’ and I noticed Millie’s eyes glaze over with boredom. Splash caught her expression and grinned.
‘I know,’ he said, removing Muscadet’s disc from the machine and replacing it with another. ‘But hey, I got paid!’
‘Fair enough,’ Millie shrugged.
‘This next one’s an indie band from Liverpool, called The Stairs. They’re a bit retro, not really my cup of tea, all haircuts and accents, but I got the chance to use my new B4 Hammond plug-in.’
‘B4 Hammond plug-in.’
‘And that would be what, exactly?’ asked Millie.
‘It’s a replica Hammond Organ,’ explained Splash. ‘Only instead of having to wheel in a huge great cabinet and speaker you use a simulated programme on the computer. It does the job perfectly and doesn’t take up any space.’
‘Wonderful idea,’ I said, listening intently to the wailings of The Stairs, who also seemed to share Muscadet’s vernacular of loving, missing and losing girls.
‘So what d’you think?’ beamed Splash proudly.
‘What strikes me,’ I said, ‘is the clarity. Our demos always sound muffled, like they’d been recorded inside a marshmallow and then dragged through a puddle of mud. On your stuff you can hear everything.’
‘I agree,’ said Millie. ‘Sounds fantastic, but what d’you think you can do to our songs?’
‘Well, Withnail played me one of your cds,’ he said, scratching his stubble and consigning The Stairs back into the drawer. ‘Nice tunes but there’s no edge, no grit.’
‘Oh,’ she said, slightly deflated.
‘Yeah,’ he continued, waving his hands demonstratively like an over-enthusiastic university lecturer. ‘Your lyrics say to me sex, drugs and rebellion, but your recordings give off this vibe of sugary, fluffy plum cakes.’
We laughed. Splash certainly had a strange turn of phrase.
‘Hey!’ he said. ‘That’s more like it. At least the songs don’t need to sound more ‘square’ or ‘orange’.’
Now we were totally confused, but beginning to enjoy ourselves.
‘Look,’ he said. ‘Let’s try something.’
Splash flicked the ‘on’ switch to one of his keyboards lying on the desk next to the computer and ran his fingers over the keys. It gave off a lovely, warm piano sound, not like the tinny resonance of even my best Casio.
‘Play one of your songs,’ he instructed, looking at me. ‘I’ll look for a rhythm and work out the b.p.m.’
‘Which one?’ I asked Millie.
‘Not ‘You Thrill Me To Death’, she said. ‘I’m sick of recording that one. How about ‘Pop Trash’ or ‘Colourburst’?’
‘Ok. ‘Pop Trash’ it is.’
I plonked away at the chords in my rudimentary fashion: C, F and G major while Splash fired up his programme and tapped out a time signature.
‘120 b.p.m.’, he called out. Good. Nice and steady. Bit of a disco tempo but we’ll sort that out. Don’t want to come over all Sophie Ellis Bextor.’
He laughed a dirty laugh. Millie scowled at the sexual innuendo.
‘Do you want to try singing along to that, Millie?’ he asked. ‘There’s a mic plugged in just there. Don’t worry about the background noise. I’ll just use this track as a guide.’
Millie turned to see a microphone placed on a stand in the corner of the room. She nodded and set up position just in front of the pop screen, picking up a pair of headphones hanging on a hook on the wall. Splash ran a sixteen-bar drum loop, which I continued to play along to.
‘How are your levels?’ Splash called into the talk-back mic. Under her headphones Millie counted one-two, one two and gave him the thumbs up.
‘Ok, let’s just run through it, he instructed. ‘I won’t be recording this. Just get you warmed up. Four bar intro. Relax. Big breasts! Ha ha! I mean deep breaths. Here we go. And a-one, two, one, two, three, four…’
‘”…A jukebox noise calling outside … it’s got no reason to come in … it could be yours, it could be mine … watch it scratch under my skin!…”’
‘Good,’ said Splash, frantically hitting the computer keyboard and adjusting knobs on the effects rack. ‘Keep playing that Jon. And Millie, take a couple of steps nearer the mic. Good. Fine. And again, this time with feeling.’
Solid Gold Easy Action …
Splash was in his element, and like a mad scientist scurried around his laboratory looking for the next button to press while click-clicking his mouse into near submission. Splash worked hard and he worked fast. He kept going on raw adrenalin and a constant supply of Marlboro cigarettes; strong, black coffee and American donuts. In between takes Millie or I ran into Muswell Hill to grab takeaway coffee and snacks from one of the countless delis and cafés on The Broadway. By the time we returned, armed with sugary goodies, Splash had copied, pasted, sampled and looped what we’d recorded, sculpting the track into shape. While we scoffed and slurped and the computer did its thing, we listened to Splash deliver acerbic monologues on the state of the music business.
By the end of the day, our heads spinning from the extreme intake of caffeine and sugar, we’d recorded the basic bed of the song – synth bass, two keyboard parts, a simple one-note melody solo in the middle eight and a complete lead vocal, all accompanied by a mosaic of drum loops and samples. For such a short length of time in the studio we had produced a tremendous amount of work. It wasn’t lazy, it wasn’t safe and we weren’t yet tired of hearing the track over and over again.
‘Good stuff, people,’ said Splash, relaxing lazily back in his chair, rubbing his hands with delight and licking remnants of sugary donut from his lips.
‘What you’ve done so far is amazing,’ said Millie, pecking him on the cheek in thanks.
‘Not a problem,’ purred Splash. ‘Once you get the basics done, the rest should follow, like flies follow a cow’s arse waiting for it to shit.’
‘Nice,’ I said, gathering up our amassed assortment of cardboard coffee cups and donut cartons.
‘Give us a few days to sort out the loops and do a bit of vocal editing,’ Splash continued. ‘And then we’ll think about getting your guitarist and bass player in.’
‘What about drums?’
‘No need. Live drums sound shit unless you spend pot loads of cash. Save for being in an expensive studio you’ve only got two chances of getting a decent drum sound.’
‘Two? What are they?’
‘Slim and fuck all!’
‘Right. I’m not sure how Lucas will take the news,’ I said.
‘Don’t worry. I’ll find some decent samples to play around with. When he hears them he’ll know. In any case, he could always come up and direct me on how he plays.’’
‘Ok. Week after next sometime?’
‘Yeah, next Wednesday’s good. Around midday. Don’t want to start too early, do we?’
‘No,’ I agreed.
‘Looks like you should be getting off home,’ said Splash, winking at me and pointing at Millie. She was sat in her chair, eyelids drooping, despite the coffee. She’d sung her heart out that afternoon, as well as danced about the studio. This was good news. When Millie danced it proved the track was good. It was our secret litmus test.
‘Cheers Splash,’ I said, shaking him warmly by the hand as I led Millie out of the front door.
‘No worries my boy,’ he grinned. ‘I’ll see you next week. And you, Missy.’
Millie smiled and shivered. The Muswell Hill air was cold, which with any luck would keep us awake long enough to stagger home on the bus. Splash slammed the door closed and we wandered back in the direction of The Broadway roundabout to search for a nightbus. As we sat huddled in the shelter, our bottoms freezing on the cold, red wiry seats, we chatted idly about the day’s events.
‘Splash’s great, isn’t he?’ said Millie, sleepily.
‘Yeah. I thought so. Never heard sounds like it. I could hardly believe it was us playing there.’
‘All it needs now is bass and guitar,’ she said.
‘And that’s where thinks go down Fuckup Alley,’ I mused.
‘How’d you mean?’
‘I mean Elliott. I’m sure Greg will be fine, and Lucas will understand the drum sample situation, but Elliott? Elliott’ll no doubt find some excuse for not coming. Like he’s working or something, the cretin.’
‘Maybe he’ll take the day off?’ suggested Millie, with a half-yawn, half-shiver.
‘Elliot! Take a day off? You jest! Oh yeah, and maybe Elton John will fuck off to Outer Mongolia and leave us poor music lovers alone. Not a chance!’
‘You can’t be sure,’ said Millie.
‘Oh can’t I,’ I scoffed. ‘Has he shown any inkling of wanting to be part of this band for the past six months?’
‘Well, no. Not exactly,’ she thought aloud.
‘Has he bought any new gear. Has he written any songs, or suggested rehearsals or come up with a better idea of how we get a deal rather than sending out crappy demos willy nilly?’
‘Ok, you’re right,’ she agreed. ‘But what do you want to do? We can’t fire him. We’d be right up shit creek if we suddenly got a deal and had to do some gigs. Especially if all this stuff with Splash pays off.’
Just then the nightbus approached and I held out my arm to catch the driver’s eye. The bus swerved in to the stop and screeched to a halt. I dragged Millie off the seat and we stepped onto the bus, waving our passes at the disinterested driver. As we took our places I looked at Millie and sighed.
‘Oh I don’t know. I hate this. Everything goes really well for a while and just as we’re beginning to look forwards we have to stop and sort out Elliott, knowing full well he’ll put a dampener on things.’
‘Just like Simon,’ Millie said.
‘Yeah. Just like frickin’ Simon.’
‘I could do without all this hassle again,’ she said. ‘It was bad enough last time.’
‘Tell me about it. At least Elliott can’t blackmail us.’
‘True. Still doesn’t make him any less of a tosser though, does it?’
I didn’t answer, but stared out of the greasy bus window as we climbed Hornsey Rise on our way to Archway. Of all the musicians in London why did we have to end up with Elliott. Why couldn’t he have joined Oasis and fucked up their career, thus saving the planet from interminable boredom? Or Coldplay?
As we passed the rows of Victorian conversions and cornershop businesses still open at twelve-thirty at night, I wondered how many bands there were out there who were equally or even more talented than those in the charts, who had been denied success because their drummer or singer preferred a few beers with their mates or their regular Thursday evening shag rather then rehearsing a new tune. Or how many bands wouldn’t have got as far as they did if they’d had a member with Elliott’s attitude. ‘Sorry lads, I’d love to record ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ but Doreen’s up for it tonight and I promised to take her down the chippy for a bit of fish and finger pie.’
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?
Sunday, Sunday here again, a walk in the park …
I eventually curled up on the sofa wrapped in my jacket at around seven thirty and must have quickly dozed off. I awoke shortly after one as Millie clinked my large Scooby Doo mug filled with strong tea down on the coffee table. Ruffled and dishevelled, she was nevertheless a sight for my sore and throbbing eyes. She rubbed my hair and pecked me gently on my cheek. Her breath was still sweet from the remains of last night’s alcohol. She’d changed out of her damp, smoky clothes into a pair of baggy grey tracksuit trousers and a crumpled Romeo & Juliet tee shirt. I sat up slowly and reached for my tea. It steamed hot but I still took a large gulp. I gasped and licked my lips. To me, tea was like heroin flowing through a junkie’s veins. I needed my daily hit of caffeine almost as badly as a smoker needs a drag on the morning’s first cigarette. I put down my mug and gave Millie a hug. She was warm and soft, and I could feel the smooth curve of her breasts against my cheek. Her heart pumped steadily, and she breathed gently in and out as I squeezed her tightly. These moments were precious to us and for once we said nothing. We didn’t need to speak. I had no idea what day it was and for once any thoughts of the band could wait. Eventually, Millie drew back from my bear hug and spoke softly.
‘What do you fancy doing today?’ she asked.
‘What day is it?’
‘Fancy a trip to the River?’
‘Hmm. Yeah, we could get some lunch at The Anchor.’
‘Fine. I’ll have a quick splash in the sink, get changed and then we’ll go. You look as if you could do with a wash as well.’
‘Ok, ok. Let me finish my tea. How’s my hair looking?’
‘Stupid. Stick your head under the shower. Or wear a hat.’
‘Thank you Nicky Clarke!’ I laughed, patting my head. ‘Any chance of some toast?’
‘You know where the bread’s kept,’ said Millie, disappearing into the bathroom. ‘Make me some too while you’re there.’
When we moved from Buckton Heath we discovered plenty of places in London to seek solace and the Thames was one of our symbolic escapes from the real world. We also ran away to Regent’s Park, Highgate or wandered along the Southbank. We bought cheap bread to feed the swans and geese on Regent’s Park boating lake, and in the autumn hand-fed the grey squirrels with peanuts. They were tame enough to climb up your leg and onto your shoulder, and often tourists would stop and take photographs of Millie feeding the furry animals. We supped tea in the café near the open-air theatre and strolled arm in arm through the imposing rose gardens, noting which celebrities had been honoured with a rose named after them. Down by the Thames we rummaged amongst the second-hand books in the market under Waterloo Bridge and watched the young skater- bois under the arches perfecting their tricks. We strolled along the Silver Jubilee Queen’s Walk on Bankside, in the shadow of 1960’s concrete splendour, towards the site of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre and King’s Reach Towers, the home of the enemy. The N.M.E. Arselicking dull, indie moaners with no time for genuine pop bands. If we still had the energy, we crossed Southwark Bridge, gazed at tourists milling around St Paul’s and finally walked all the way up to The Barbican. Here we raided the café, and then sat by the fountains, watching the ducks swimming past on the canal.
In the first few months of living in Kentish Town we went everywhere. Highgate Cemetery to visit the tombstone of Karl Marx, Hampstead Village to catch a glimpse of Noel Gallagher’s Rolls parked outside a pub, or even Richard and Judy shopping in Our Price. We strode up Primrose Hill and wondered at the view of London. We spent a day at the zoo and many afternoons at the National Portrait Gallery. We visited trendy art exhibitions in Hoxton and we enjoyed comedy evenings in Muswell Hill. We shopped amongst the young and the trendy in Camden Market and pressed our noses up against exclusive boutiques in New Bond Street acting out our own Breakfast At Tiffany’s fantasies. We got to know all the mini grid roads around the back of Oxford Street in Soho, avoiding the tourist crush and got used to seeing famous faces wandering through the city streets as if they weren’t well-known at all. We filled our non-college days with activities that cost little more than the price of a daily bus pass, a cup of tea or coffee and maybe a sandwich from the deli. It took our minds off Mervyn Lester, Elliott, his dumb girlfriend, rehearsal fees, uncommunicative venue managers and lazy A&R men.
The day the world turned day-glo …
That Sunday we wandered along the Holloway Road and caught the 43 to London Bridge. Once there we climbed down the narrow steps to Bedale Street that led towards Southwark Market. Just around the corner on Clink Street from Drake’s Golden Hinde we found The Seaman’s Rest, an authentic Elizabethan inn that overlooked the Thames. Millie went inside to get two beers, while I bagged an outside table, next to a family of German tourists, resplendent in matching day-glo anoraks, pouring over a map of London.
‘Wo ist Buckingham Palast?’ the mother asked.
‘Es ist hier, nahe Victoria Station,’ the broad, bearded father replied, prodding with his finger, and then turning the map upside down.
‘Vater, sind wir müde. Können wir eine Eiscreme bitte haben?’ cried one of the children, who looked like the Milky Bar Kid, all ginger freckles and round, Lennon glasses.
‘Nein,’ shouted the mother, donning a pair of huge, red-rimmed spectacles and peering at the map, her face contorted with puzzled confusion.
‘Excuse me,’ the father turned to me. ‘Wo ist Buckingham Palast?’
They were quite a way off, and there weren’t any tubes or buses nearby. I pointed them in the direction of Blackfriars and watched in amusement as they folded away their map, gathered up their belongings and set off stridently down the road, their identical backpacks bobbing up and down in unison.
‘All right Jon?’ said Millie, returning with two cold glasses of lager. ‘Who was that then?’
‘Just some tourists looking for Buckingham Palace.’
‘Did you tell them the way?’
Simon says …
Our conversation had reached monosyllabic proportions. It wasn’t that we didn’t have anything to talk about. Far from it. It’s just neither of us wanted to broach the subject of the band, particularly the problem of dealing with Elliott and Simon. We sipped our beers slowly and deliberately, both of us resisting the temptation to start an exchange on the matter. Finally, Millie broke the silence.
‘That e-mail was a bit of a surprise,’ she said, rubbing the rim of her glass with her little finger and licking a few drops of beer.
‘D’you think he’s got another motive for getting in touch again?’ I asked, shivering slightly from the cold wind blowing off the Thames.
‘I reckon so. He never really forgave you for splitting up the first Detox Cute, and I bet he’s jealous of what we’re up to now.’
‘Oh right. You mean being utterly broke and living in a shithole!’
‘No, carrying on and trying to make it in the business.’
‘Yeah, well, Simon’s a decent enough guitarist, but he’ll never want to put in the hours. I bet he still thinks being a good guitar player is all it takes.’
‘He could stir up trouble though’, said Millie, swirling my beer in her glass and watching it froth. ‘If we do make it, he’ll run straight to the press to tell his side of the story. And there’s a lot of shit in the past which could hurt our careers.’
‘Simon wouldn’t dare,’ I scoffed. ‘And anyway, who’d believe him?’
‘Who knows? But do we want to take that chance?’
‘Fuck him!’ I cursed. ‘Why did this have to happen just as we were getting going again?’
‘Because our fate isn’t planned,’ said Millie, philosophically. ‘Or somehow written in the stars. It’s just a series of big cock-ups!’
She was right. Nothing we’d attempted had gone as intended. If it’d had, we’d be living in large mansions by now, counting our money and inexcusably discovering a taste for Elton John records.
‘We should introduce Simon to Elliott,’ I suggested, taking a large gulp of lager. ‘And see which one is the bigger egotistical maniac.’
‘It’s a thought!’ laughed Millie.
‘Elliott’s a fricking arse,’ I said. ‘I get this feeling that he’ll somehow upset Splash.’
‘Why so negative Dempsey?’
‘Cos every time we call him to say something good’s happened, he goes and pisses on it. Like the time we got offered that cable TV show. He says he can’t do it ‘cos he’s having a beer after work ‘cos some sad muppet is leaving.’
‘He’s just got this weird sense of loyalty,’ mused Millie. ‘Once he’s agreed to do something, he sticks to it, whether or not a hundred other people get pissed off in the process.’
‘I just hate the fact everyone else thinks he’s so wonderful,’ I said. ‘Yeah, so his guitar playing is good, but there’s more to being in the music business than talent. You do have to work at it and not just sit back and wait for people to come to you.’
‘Maybe he’s scared,’ said Millie, squeezing my hand. ‘Small audiences and rent-a-mob crowds made up from your own friends can act like a security blanket.’
‘I don’t think Elliott is frightened,’ I replied. ‘Just arrogant in need of constant ego massaging.’
Millie trembled with both cold and frustration.
‘Remember the one piece of decent advice Lester gave us?’
‘Oh sure, I said, adopting my best Welsh accent. ‘A band is only as good as its weakest link’.’
‘Well, Elliott’s our weakest link,’ she insisted.’ ‘And he’s dragging us down to local band level.’
‘I agree,’ I said, gulping down the last of my beer and slamming the glass on the table. ‘But what can we do?’
‘I don’t know.’ ‘I’d love to tell him to fuck off, but that means we’ll be searching for another guitarist.’
‘Yeah, and I’m not sure I could deal with more auditions.’
‘Life’, mused Millie, ‘would be so much easier without other people.’
I got you, babe …
We were both tired, and fed up with arguing about the merits of band members. In a bizarre way it kept us together for so long. When we did quarrel, it was always about the band. Never about each other. We were the latest in the long line of musician couples: Sonny and Cher, Debbie Harry and Chris Stein, Cerys and Mark from Catatonia and all the variable combinations that made up Fleetwood Mac. Then again, in certain circles, having a couple in a band could be frowned upon. When the guitarist’s girlfriend suddenly becomes a backing singer for no apparent reason, sparks are sure to fly. Or in Paul McCartney’s case, employing your non-musical wife on keyboards when you’re about to embark on a mammoth tour would certainly get the knives sharpened. But with us, Millie joined my group, the struggling Stella Tortoise, when we were lacking motivation and in need of impetus. Only then did I discover we shared the same ideals and musical principals. Only then did we become locked together, professionally and personally.
Music became the strongest glue we knew.