A String Quartet, You Say?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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From Under The Covers

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

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

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

*With apologies to non-Al fans …

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

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

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

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

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

These Cars Collide …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Business We All Call ‘Show’

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

(*The Stone Roses’ controversial record contract …)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miserable Moz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nul Points

joe-and-jake

“Hey Mister Eurovision Song Contest Man … would you like to hear my song?”

Er, no, actually. The UK’s entry to this year’s European warble-fest is simply hideous. I’ll give them “woah woah woah”. (more like “woe woe woe” – bad pun, sorry). Doesn’t anyone know how to write lyrics these days? Do people actually sit down with pen and paper and think, “ooh, I know, woah, oh woah, oh woah …”. Reaches for rhyming dictionary to find rhyme for ‘together’ ‘ forever’ (possibly ‘friend’, ‘end’, ‘rain’, ‘train’ and ‘brain’). “Oh” people will protest, “this is irrelevant because the UK produces quality acts like Clodplay, Adele and James Bay.”

At which point, I sigh and go back to bed, hugging my copy of “Weightlifting’ by the Trashcan Sinatras, contemplating the career of James Bay, whose entire act seems to consist of him wearing a hat.

Relatively simple I guess, wearing a hat. The Hedge from Bono and the U2 has elongated his own career by many a year, initially adopting a reject from one of Ken Dodd’s Diddy Men (ask your parents, kids) and finally settling upon the knitted beany, even when attending a black-tie event.

The Monkees’ Mike (W.H. Woolhat) Nesmith wore a green, Benny-from-Crossroads, bobble hat at his audition for the show, having purchased the said item to keep his hair from a-blowin’ in the wind when riding his motorcycle.

So back to Joe and Jake (has anyone done the trendy thing yet and put the first bits of their joint names together and come up with ‘Joke”? Anyone, anyone? Bueller? Neither of them, from their vacant faces in the picture, look as if they know what the strange, metallic, silver thing is in front of them, but they’ve gainly opened their mouths for the photographer in the vague hope that they come across as convincing singers. And they’ve certainly got the moves – Joe, (or possibly Jake), knows a couple of chords on his acoustic guitar – the sound which is as fresh and original as the day in 1987 when the guitarist from Then Jericho first played it. Jake, (could be Joe, who knows), thrusts and squirms in the way young people do these days, looking like he needs the toilet rather badly.

I’m considering starting a campaign to get “Mister Eurovision Song Contest Man” – so wonderfully written and performed by former Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band member and one-time Rutle Neil Innes – installed as this year’s entry instead. But than again, has the day of the Facebook campaign been and gone? I myself was part of an effort, back in 2009, to rid the Christmas charts of the despicable Simon Cowell and his Karaoke drivel. Indeed, my own song was heading the campaign to be the ‘official’ competition, until something very odd occurred with the Rage Against The Machine entry.

“We’re not going to do what people tell us” said RATM. “That’s right,” said the guy leading the campaign. “Don’t do what people tell you. Don’t buy Simon Cowell’s record. Buy RATM’s record, which says, ‘don’t do what people tell you’.”

“Okay,” said all the people. “We won’t do what Simon Cowell tells us, we’ll do what RATM tell us, which is not to do what people tell us. That’ll really stick it to The Man!”

And so people bought both records, each trying to out-bid the other, buying even more to stop the other. Both of which were on the same record label … co-incidentally the one with whom a certain Mr S Cowell had such an interest.

Bing bang bong … inky pinky parlez-vouz, wunderbar, ooh la la …

 

 

 

 

“I Don’t Like Cricket … I Love It”

There isn’t much you can do when you’re lying in a hospital bed with a drip hammered into your arm in early December except think.

The first thing I was thinking was that despite thinking I followed a balanced diet, a salad followed by a bag of donuts wasn’t quite technically balanced. Nor was croissants for breakfast followed by sandwiches made from croissants – filled with cheese, butter and mayonaise – (I’d convinced / deluded myself that adding a sprig of lettuce on top would somehow compensate for all the saturated fats my body was absorbing.)

Naturally my work-mates were astounded by the news that my gall bladder couldn’t take anymore punishment, having been royally abused and as overworked as an 18th Century, railway building navvy, suffering more punishment than a music fan listening to a Coldplay single. The doctors told me my gall bladder was extremely wild and angry. If I may paraphrase ‘Not The Nine O’Clock News’, I’d have been more than wild if I’d had to endure the penance and retribution my poor body had endured the last few years – I’d have been livid.

My colleagues adopted the “but you’re not fat” approach on being confronted with news of my impending surgery to have my bladder and offending gallstones removed. I welcomed the compliment but shrugged anyway.

The chap in the next bed to me was possibly the rudest man on the planet. At first, his curt, arrogant, ignorant demands were mildly amusing and the fella in the bay opposite and I exchanged knowing glances, raised our eyebrows and nodded sagely in the simultaneous agreement that he was the biggest dick we’d ever encountered. But over time we realised that this level of rudeness wasn’t remotely funny, especially when directed at people who were essentially angels, caring for us, protecting us and having nothing but our best interests at heart.

I found solace of a kind in a BBC4 documentary on the Manchester band 10cc that I was able to watch on my tablet. Four men who always seemed to be middle-aged (even though they were probably younger than I am now) with no particular fixed hairstyles (or musical style for that matter) seemed to have written an inordinate amount of hits for a band I could only remember for the cheerless and desolate “I’m Not In Love” and the droll,  (but frankly absurd), “Dreadlock Holiday”.

Staff at an NHS hospital are remarkable … they put up with an awful lot (bodily functions accepted, disrespect and boorishness tolerated, patience tested to the limit) and yet still they maintain a level of professionalism whomever the incumbent Health Secretary is seems to ignore or cannot comprehend. I was introduced by a no-nonsense nurse to Henry, a trainee doctor, who asked if I wouldn’t mind if he took some blood? Henry looked about twelve years old and was shaking like the proverbial leaf as he aimed a small, sharp needle in the direction of one of my angrily purple, protruding veins.

I forgave Henry as the needle dropped and bounced off the bed like an Olympic gymnast dismounting from the parallel bars. My nurse remained lily-pond calm, broke open a frash implement and efficiently inserted the end into my arm, by now as bruised and battered as the last apple left on the shelf. By now, as Tony Hancock famously exerted, I was convinced they’d taken nearly an armful. I was tired. So tired …