‘Paul King Stole My Haircut’ – Chapter 13

‘Paul King Stole My Haircut’ – Chapter 13

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.’

‘Eh?’

‘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?’

‘And?’

‘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…”.’

‘Right.’

‘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?’

‘Meaning?’

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.

‘Oooh, touchy!’

‘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 saidpunk-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.

I hesitated.

‘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.’

‘How’s that?’

‘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.

‘Yes?’

Stella Tortoise. I mean as a name. It’s not great, is it?’

‘Eh?’

‘You mustn’t give anyone who is reviewing anything you do the chance for a bit of lazy journalism,’ she continued.

‘Meaning?’

‘Well, you know that band, Standard Lamp?’

‘Yep.’

‘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.

She blushed.

‘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!’

‘Great!’

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?

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‘Paul King Stole My Haircut’ – Chapter 12

‘Paul King Stole My Haircut’ – Chapter 12

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?’

‘Sunday.’

‘Oh right.’

‘Well?’

‘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.’

I yawned.

‘Ok, ok. Let me finish my tea. How’s my hair looking?’

‘Upright.’

‘Trendy?’

‘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.’

‘Oh’.

‘German.’

‘Right.’

‘Did you tell them the way?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Good.’

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.

‘What, Simon’s?’

‘Mmm.’

‘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.

‘Paul King Stole My Haircut’ – Chapter 11

‘Paul King Stole My Haircut’ – Chapter 11

Sign your name across my heart …

Elliott finally showed up in The Dog just after 7:15. Millie, as ever, was far from impressed with our guitarist’s timekeeping.

‘Where’ve you been, you idiot!’

‘Oh hi Mills,’ he said, nonchalantly. ‘Am I late?’

‘Don’t call me Mills!’ she screamed. ‘And yes, you are late.’

‘Oh, like, sorry,’ he mumbled. ‘I forgot to put on my watch this morning, but I thought if I was late it wouldn’t matter ‘cos you guys would sort everything.’

He wasn’t wrong. We always sorted everything.

‘You might have called us,’ Millie continued. ‘But in any case, we tried your phone, and it wasn’t on.’

‘Well, I don’t want to waste the battery, do I?’ he protested.

Millie was about to launch into a tirade of ‘what’s the point of having a mobile phone if you never turn it on’ but there wasn’t time. I pulled at her sleeve.

‘Leave it,’ I said. ‘Don’t waste your breath. He’s not listening. Anyway, Mervyn’s not here yet, either.’

‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘I just wanted everything to be perfect.’

I nodded in agreement and looked around to see if our erstwhile Mr Big had made his entrance. I wondered quite what the lonely old men supping pints who stared at us as we walked in must have made of it all. Four scruffy, skinny blokes and a pretty girl, out of our depths and possibly, with what we were about to do, out of our minds. We were due to meet Mervyn Lester, a ruddy-faced Welshman who had offered us a record deal after Millie sent him one of our demos. Lester wasn’t a big player in the business by any chalk, but his small, independent production company boasted an array of minor chart hits and he certainly talked a good fight. In conversation he often dropped names of producers and artists we’d heard of, although we were never quite sure exactly what his relationship with them was. As starry-eyed youngsters though, we grew wrapped around his little finger and talked excitedly of TV appearances, world tours and a chance to meet our rock ‘n’ roll heroes. Initially, he hadn’t seemed terribly impressed by our collection of poorly recorded songs, but Millie hadn’t been in the mood to be given the brush off. She somehow persuaded Lester to haul himself off his fat backside to see us play in one of Camden’s smaller, though equally foul-smelling clubs. We performed competently enough, and while exchanging pleasantries with a few beers after the gig, Lester delivered those magic words:

‘Right you lot. I think I could do something with you. Let me get back to my office, and tomorrow I’ll draw up a contract.’

I could feel Millie’s boot kicking my leg underneath the table. We were sat like swans on a lake: on top calm and composed, underneath hysterically kicking and screaming.

‘That’s great,’ she said, smiling at Lester while trying to act as if being offered a record deal was a perfectly normal, everyday event.

‘Right, I’ll be in touch,’ said Lester, swallowing the last dregs of his beer, slamming down the empty glass, and making his way out through the dispersing crowd.

When he’d gone, it was safe to let go. Millie squealed with delight, while Greg, Elliott and I shook hands and laughed. Lucas banged the table with the palms of his hands and wore the broadest grin. We’d done it. That was that. Roll on Popworld and the big limousines. We pooled up our remaining cash and ordered the cheapest sparkling wine from the bar to celebrate. As we chinked glasses we each dreamed of the future.

‘I can’t wait for the first video,’ said Millie. ‘I’ll wear this long, designer Wayne Hemmingway dress and get my hair personally done by Vidal Sassoon, and we’ll get Tim Pope to direct it and Robert Smith can make a guest appearance…’

‘…and I’ll get an active Music Man Stingray bass,’ interrupted Greg, with single humbucker tone, and wide string spacing and a 3-1 headstock …’

‘…Rickenbacker 325V63, Fender American Standard Telecaster, Les Paul 56 Goldtop …’ continued Elliott.

‘…Pearl export 5-piece with Mahogany shells, Remo Roto Toms, a Sabian 21” Dry Ride and a lackey to carry the stuff to and from gigs…’ said Lucas, relieved he would no longer have to haul his kit around rehearsals and gigs in the back of his cramped Vauxhall Nova.

‘…Ben Sherman, some arty David Byrne movie …’ I mused, dreaming of all the corporate adverts and cool films my songs could be used in.

For a brief moment, we allowed ourselves to be overtaken with emotion, disappearing into the realms of our rock ‘n’ roll fantasies. For once, my cynicism evaporated and all my worries about my age, hair, looks, ability and stage presence dissolved into the bubbles of cheap lager in the thick, smoke-filled Camden air.

Only in the cold light of the following morning did I fully take stock of the previous evening’s events. It must be thousands of people’s dreams to sign a record deal, I considered, and now we were about to fulfil that dream. The strangest thing was, the sensation wasn’t at all as I’d expected. I gradually realised that I’d never thought of anything beyond signing a contract. I felt a mild panic. What do we do now?

The band always looked to me and Millie, as if we were somehow more experienced than them. In some ways we were. We’d gigged in bigger venues and Millie in particular always gave the impression that she was a music business veteran. The truth was, none of us had been signed before, and we were all heading off into unknown territory. I thought about the others revelling in the moment, no doubt not thinking too hard about the future. This was my moment, our moment, their moment. I couldn’t go back to being a dreamer. The dream was effectively over. I’d been offered a recording deal and I felt numb.

Don’t believe in anything …

We weren’t the least surprised when Lester suggested the formal signing in a pub, and not his office. Over the preceding months we’d never seen his place of work, and had always met in a bar or café. Somehow, we never doubted he didn’t have a proper administrative centre. Looking back, we never harboured the thought that he actually worked from the bedroom of his basement flat in Stoke Newington. We were constantly diverted from his workplace by a last minute phone call, suggesting alternatives. Gullible as we were, we were always happy to swap our journey plans from a flat in Stokey to a Soho pub to have a beer or three. Looking back, I realised Mervyn was playing a cunning game, plying us with alcohol to avoid having to discuss any real business.

Back in the honeymoon period we readily accepted the preliminary contract drawn up by Melvyn’s lawyer.   We were offered an initial eighteen-month deal, with a further eighteen-month option for at least one more album. Each should consist of a minimum twenty-four songs. I’d half-expected a leather-bound folder and some expensive, watermarked paper, with reams and reams of paragraphs, maybe sealed with a red ribbon. All we were handed was half a dozen photocopies of some poorly typed script, stapled loosely in the top left-hand corner. Still, I fervently examined the print, just like the others. We each had a copy to scrutinise, although most of it was legal jargon. We discovered we could claim legal assistance from the Musician’s Union, and so all clubbed together so that Millie could join and obtain the help. The contract then proceeded to bounce backwards and forwards between us and the lawyers like an exceedingly dull baseline rally in the second round of the ladies’ singles on an outside court at Wimbledon.

The lawyers reduced the amount of tracks suggested to twelve, which was promptly raised by Lester to eighteen. The advance, which red topped dailies usually reported in millions when covering deals signed by pretty pop puppets, was a meagre forty thousand pounds. Although we wouldn’t actually see any of this money, Lester assured us that it would buy the best studio time available. As naive as we were we didn’t see any reason to argue. After all, we’d been used to spending four to five hundred pounds on studio demos, so forty thousand seemed like winning the Lottery. Our image rights were secured, lost and secured again. The territories that we were to be exploited to went from the known universe and beyond, to simply the world and its identified regions. Greg’s address had to be altered from Copenhagen Close to Copenhagen Street, effectively moving him from Acton to King’s Cross. Oh, and we found out that Elliott’s real first name was Louis. Louis Elliott Tristan Barker. He’d changed to using his second name after being mercilessly teased at primary school with jibes of ‘Lou’, or ‘Loo’ and ‘Toilet Boy’ and ‘Bog Head’. Eventually, the contract was finalised, and a date was set to meet up in The Dog and put pen to paper.

When Lester finally arrived, three-quarters of an hour late, we were more than anxious. We’d downed a second pint each and Lucas had made six trips to the toilet. Elliott had further aggravated Millie by constantly calling his girlfriend on his mobile, trying to arrange his evening plans. All we could hear was Elliott saying, ‘I don’t know how long I’ll be, not much longer, tell everyone I’ll be there soon,’ as if he had better things to do and better places to go. I’d waited all my life for this and it seemed Elliott would rather be anywhere else than here.

Lester’s entrance was marked with an ironic round of applause from Lucas and Greg, whose nerves, apprehension and lager were making them act out completely of character. Lester blustered into the bar, an oversized black leather bag slung over his shoulder that was in danger of upsetting any beer glass in his wake. We weren’t surprised to see him dressed in a gaudy yellow and black short-sleeved shirt and tight cycling shorts, his red face puffed out and his forehead covered in tiny beads of sweat. Lester was the furthest thing from a conventional record company executive, appearing more like a cartoon character from The Beano or Dandy. There was no suit, tie or ponytail – just a high pitched Welsh accent, a bizarre range of inappropriate, ill-fitting clothing and an embarrassing tendency to use the word ‘fantastic’, even when things weren’t. Lester huffed and puffed and dangled his bag over the back of an empty chair. We watched with stifled giggles as he struggled manfully to pull his bulging wallet from the confines of his unyielding Lycra shorts. Lester ordered a triple JD and Coke, then somehow managed to both offend and confuse the barman by complaining that the music on the jukebox was both ‘fantastic’ and ‘fucking awful’, the shots of JD too small, the amount of ice ‘fantastic’ and the number 47 bus a fucking disgrace to ‘fantastic’ London ‘fucking’ Transport.

Finally, the dust settled and Lester joined us at our table. Flapping about in his gigantic bag he pulled out six finalised copies of our contract. As we sat round the table, Lester read out the vital terms.

‘Right then you lot, ‘ he began. ‘We’re all agreed on a basic one-album deal, consisting of twelve fantastic tracks plus three extra as potential ‘b’ sides, re-mixes notwithstanding.’

We all nodded.

‘The recording period covers an initial six months,’ Lester continued, ‘followed by the maximum of a year’s fantastic promotion and exploitation by me. If successful, I give you the fantastic revised option of a further album.’

‘And if not?’ asked Millie.

‘If not, you fuck off and leave me in peace,’ he replied. ‘Look, if I fail to effectively promote your fantastic record, you’ll be free to go once the fantastic eighteen-month period is up.’

‘Sounds simple enough,’ said Lucas. After all, we’ve recorded five song demos in three days before. It’s gonna be real be easy to do fifteen in six months.’

-‘I’ll provide the studio,’ continued Lester, ‘from which all costs, including fantastic engineer, producer and sundry expenditure will be deducted from the fantastic forty grand.’

‘Fantastic,’ said Greg, missing the irony completely.

We were all nodding and agreeing with Lester, even though we didn’t really have much of a clue whether we were being sold down the river or not. I’d been warned that I would sign the first deal was plonked in front of me, legal advice or not, but I scorned the notion that I wouldn’t know what I was getting into. In the end, nervousness took over and I sat poised, biro in hand, hovering excitedly on the edge of my seat ready to commit my soul to the devil. In this case, Lucifer was represented by a ridiculous Welshman in obscene cycling shorts.

Beginning with Millie, we each scrawled our signatures across the bottom page of the contract. Greg was the last to sign, followed by Lester’s own scribbled acknowledgment as a witness. Lester bundled up all the copies and stuffed them unceremoniously into his large bag. What now, I thought. Champagne corks a-popping? Brass band playing? Twenty-four gun salute?

‘Fine,’ said Lester, raising his glass and swigging the last few drops of JD and Coke. ‘Tell you what, I’ll get busy hunting out fantastic producers and have a nose around a few fantastic studios. Congratulations.’

We shook hands with Lester and each other and then the Welshmen made to leave. As he stumbled erratically out of The Dog, unaware that he’d upset an old man’s Guinness, we all breathed huge sighs of relief and eased back into our chairs.

‘Well, that’s it folks,’ said Millie. ‘I think we’ve finally made it.’

Frickin’ hope so!’ grinned Elliott. ‘Just think, no more having to organise grotty gigs or pay for rehearsals.’

‘Yeah, or having to put up with shitty engineers and piss-poor demos,’ agreed Lucas.

‘You two must be relieved,’ suggested Greg, pointing and me and Millie.

‘How come?’ I asked.

‘Well, after the original line-up of Detox Cute nearly got signed but then someone screwed things up, I guess you might have thought that you’re big chance had gone.’

‘You’re so right,- sighed Millie. ‘After that shambles I never thought I’d see the day when we’d ever put pen to paper.’

‘Let’s hope no one fucks this up,’ I smirked, aiming a knowing glance in Elliott’s direction.

‘Hey!’ he protested. ‘What the hell was that look for?’

I raised my eyebrows in mock indignation.

‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘Just making sure we all agree not to do anything which might jeopardise this deal.’

Before our guitarist could retaliate, his mobile rang. Typical. He was soon engrossed in arrangements for meeting Natalie somewhere in the West End at some god-awful-sounding late night bar, where beer cost five pounds a bottle and you needed to fill out a means-test application form proving you earned at least fifty ‘k’ a year to get past the burly doormen.

We were pissed off that Elliott didn’t want to stay and enjoy himself with the rest of the band and begrudgingly waved him off in the direction of Shaftesbury Avenue. The rest of the evening was spent getting more and more inebriated until our cash supplies ran so low we began ordering pints of beer accompanied by four straws. For that brief moment in time we felt invincible – prospective conquerors of the music business – who would take Wembley Arena by storm and then begin the biggest invasion of America and the Far East since the Beatles and The Stones. Quite how we’d do this on forty grand I’d no idea, but as long as the booze kept our brains fuddled we enjoyed the fantasy.

Keep the dream alive …

The intervening weeks were a glorious honeymoon period, as we basked in the limelight of having a record deal and idly made plans for TV appearances. We argued good-naturedly about how we would travel on tour, what countries we would visit and whether constantly wearing sunglasses indoors like Bono was a good idea or not. We did book a couple of rehearsals to work on prospective material, confidently predicting which songs would be the designated singles, while we waited for Lester to get back to us with studio dates. Lester maintained our interest by ringing from time to time, mumbling something about having found a producer who had once worked with The Psychedelic Furs, but he couldn’t remember his name. Either that or he’d be flying to Amsterdam to check out prospective studios. He continually assured us that one day we would all meet up and discuss the making of the album. Lester oozed effectiveness and efficiency, and despite time after time phoning to cancel our meetings he’d soften the blow with news of yet another potential studio or top notch sound engineer that he’d been negotiating a fee with.

At first, we were naturally disappointed with Lester’s erratic organisation, but kept our spirits up by meeting in the pub to mull over our future careers. However, after three months of inactivity and endless cancellations we began to feel rather abandoned. We neglected our rehearsals and our equipment began to gather dust. As a band, we drifted apart, rarely speaking or seeing each other for days on end, where previously we had habitually kept in touch. Lucas took a family holiday on the Norfolk Broads and none of us missed him. Lester’s calls grew more and more sporadic, often over a week apart. Each time we were met with the same response – meeting postponed, re-arranged for a later date but not to worry as he had investigated the possibility of recording the album on barge on the Manchester Ship Canal owned by some former bass player from a Monkees tribute band. Or some other bovine excrement.

We gotta get out of this place …

Things came to a head when Lester cancelled an appointment, said he would phone in a week’s time to arrange another get-together, duly didn’t call for over two weeks and then said he couldn’t see us for another fortnight. Millie decided to take matters into her own hand and dialled Lester’s number incessantly, until her call was finally answered by a female voice.

‘Hello, can I help you?’

‘Er, can I speak to Mervyn, please?’

‘Mr Lester’s not here, I’m afraid. He’s gone to Aberystwyth.’

‘What?’

‘Aberystwyth dear. It’s in Wales.’

‘Yes, I know thank you.’

‘May I ask who’s calling?’

‘It’s Millie.’

‘Pardon?’

‘Millie.’

‘What’s it in connection with?’

‘I’m sorry? Who am I speaking to please?’

‘I’m Rosemary, Mr Lester’s secretary. Why do you want to speak to Mr Lester?’

‘I’m from Detox Cute. I’m in a band.’

‘Well, dear, would you like to send in a demo and I’ll get Mr Lester to listen to it, when he’s got the time.’

Millie’s face went red and she started shaking.

‘Excuse me!’ she began. ‘I’m signed to your fucking company. I’m actually supposed to be making a record with that wanker. Anyway, what the hell is he doing in Aberystwyth?’

‘I don’t see that that is any business of yours, dear,’ replied Rosemary, coolly. ‘And,’ she added. ‘I don’t care for your language. Mr Lester is a very busy man and you should be grateful that he has even expressed any interest in you at all.’

Millie held the phone out from her face in disbelief, her hand trembling with rage. She tried to slam the phone down. It missed the holder and slipped.

‘Fuck!’ she cursed and replaced the receiver with a slam.

‘I think,’ she started, ‘we’re screwed.’

She relayed the story to me and the realisation dawned that we were going nowhere fast with Mervyn Lester.

‘Listen,’ I said. ‘I’ll hunt around at college to see if I can dig out any facts about Lester and his past dealings. There’s bound to be someone there who has come across him before. After all, he’s claimed to have had hit records.’

‘Ok,’ Millie sighed. ‘See what you can do. I don’t know how we’re going to tell the rest of the band though.’

‘They are going to be so pissed off,’ I suggested. ‘But what else can we do? We could end up going round in circles. I mean, it’s been nearly six months since he offered us the contract, and three since we signed the thing. I wouldn’t mind if we’d carried on gigging or whatever, but I can’t remember the last time we played a note in anger.’

Millie nodded. She looked utterly drained. After the Stella Tortoise debacle this was all we needed.

‘Look,’ I said. ‘I’ll sort it. Call the others together for tomorrow night and we’ll deal with Lester one way or the other.’

A rush and a push and the land that we stand on is ours …

We met in our flat at eight-thirty the following evening without Elliott, who was, hardly surprisingly, out with his work mates. I carefully and slowly explained the situation.

‘It doesn’t look good,’ I said. ‘I can’t see Lester ever getting his shit together and finding us a studio and a producer.’

‘What’s his problem?’ asked Greg. ‘It can’t be that difficult to hire a place.’

‘Don’t know,’ I shrugged. ‘Maybe he hasn’t got forty grand. After all, it looks good on paper but perhaps he was relying on a negotiating downtime.’

‘What about all those hit records he says he’s had?’ demanded Lucas. ‘Surely he must have made some cash from those.’

‘Funny that,’ I said. ‘I tried to look up some info at college on what part he played in those records. From what I can gather he was involved in some kind of partnership in a company that leased the tracks for compilation albums.’

‘Meaning,’ enquired Greg.

‘Well, although it looks on the surface like they were big hits, in actual fact, all Lester and his mate could hope to earn was a tiny percentage of a percentage from total sales. After all, some of those comps have forty or so tracks on them. One fortieth of whatever percentage he could get wouldn’t amount to much.’

‘Bastard!’ exclaimed Lucas. ‘So all along he was kidding us that he would invest thousands of pounds, but in reality he couldn’t even book a two hundred pounds a day demo studio.’

‘I wouldn’t trust Lester to sit the right way round on a toilet, let alone look after our careers,’ said Millie.

‘What a frickin’ waste!’ seethed Lucas. We wait two and a half months to sign the shitty contract and then spend a further three fielding excuses from that bastard!’

‘Yeah, continued Greg. ‘Now, nearly six months later and we haven’t played a single note. What’s more, that twat Elliott has turned into a right office head, and only goes out now with his cretinous office mates!’

It was true that we hardly saw our guitarist anymore. At the weekend he preferred the company of his new girlfriend Natalie, who detested live music and tried to steer our guitarist into going clubbing, spending his money in expensive bars and financing mini holidays all over Europe. Greg and Lucas were broke, having both resigned from their temporary jobs, thinking they would be needed for recording sessions. Millie and I were nearing the end of our college courses, and had exhausted our student loans. It was blatantly obvious that Lester wasn’t going to deliver, but could we afford to wait another year before we could walk from our contract?

‘Maybe we should try gigging again?’ suggested Lucas. ‘After all, we were only legally obliged to record our songs. There wasn’t anything in the contract to prevent us from performing them live.’

‘I agree,’ said Millie, and Greg and I nodded. ‘We can at least stay active while trying to work out a way of resolving the problem of Lester and his non-existent studio time.’

Greg and Lucas were keener to play live than most. They were, essentially, musicians who were more at home performing on stage than painstakingly recording songs note perfectly or having their photograph taken covered in make-up, wearing clothes they felt uncomfortable in.

‘Who’s going to let that clown Elliott know then?’ asked Greg.

‘S’pose we will,’ answered Millie. ‘Let’s arrange a rehearsal for say, next Thursday at 7?’

‘Sounds good,’ nodded Lucas. ‘But what if Bog Head is shagging what’s-her-face?’

‘Tough,’ she replied. ‘I’ll spike him in the balls with one of my stilettos and then he won’t want to play hide the sausage for a few weeks.’

Everyone laughed. It was good to vent our anger out at Elliott. We needed a punch bag or a whipping boy.   The guitarist’s constant absence from meetings made him fair game. What’s more, no one liked Natalie. She’d dragged Elliott away from us and so we labelled her Detox Cute’s Yoko Ono. Unbelievably, Elliott was utterly infatuated with her. For someone with his intelligence, she didn’t seem his type. She was large breasted and wide hipped, with a taste for vulgar red lipstick and exceedingly tight mini-skirts.   She could be extremely gracious to your face but then particularly unkind when your back was turned. When Elliott first introduced his new love to us, I was extremely alarmed by how her heaving bosom invaded my airspace. It was difficult to know where to look. She regarded musicians as only slightly more worthy than cockroaches and preferred the company of men with small arses and large wallets. At least Greg and Lucas found something in her to laugh about.

‘Body like Baywatch,’ Lucas said, smirking like an eight-year-old. ‘But a face like Crimewatch!’

‘But even you’d still want to shag it!’ Greg retorted.

‘Not without rubber gloves and a protective helmet!’ Lucas concluded.

‘Boy, not only did she fall out the ugly tree,’ sneered Greg, ‘but she must have hit every branch on the way down!’

‘Jealous!’ laughed Millie. ‘Just ‘cos you two haven’t had your end away for ages.’

‘I prefer my own company, thanks,’ said Greg.

‘Yeah, that and Captain Kleenex,’ giggled Lucas.

‘Weurgh!’ spat Millie. ‘Too much information.’

‘Ok children,’ I ordered with mock authority. ‘Let’s get back to the subject of rehearsals, shall we?’

‘How about doing some new demos?’ Millie suggested.

‘Either is good,’ said Greg.

‘Or both,’ added Lucas. ‘Wouldn’t hurt to try.’

‘Right,’ I said. ‘We’ll meet up next Thursday to go through what songs we might want to do as demos. I’ll get onto Street Sounds Studios to see what dates they’ve got free and see if I can wangle a good rate. My mate Clifford from college is the tape op there. He might do us a deal.’

‘Right then,’ said Millie. ‘Let’s do it. The fuckers haven’t beaten us yet.’

‘What about Lester?’ asked Greg.

‘Might as well forget it,’ I said. ‘Who gives a shit. The idiot obviously can’t or won’t record us. And anyway, I’m not hanging around here ‘til I’m eighty-three to find out what he has or hasn’t got planned.’

‘Elliott’s more of a problem,’ Millie said. ‘We’ve got to get him more interested in what we’re doing, and keep him away from that tart Natalie.’

‘I’ll deal with Elliott,’ I said. ‘I’ll let him know we’re going to make every effort to contact record companies and stuff, once we’ve done the demos. Butter him up a bit. Tell him he’s gonna be a star.’

‘Just so long as you keep a straight face,’ grinned Millie.

‘I’ll be okay,’ I said. ‘Elliott needs his ego massaged as much as his dick.’

‘I hope you won’t be doing that as well?’ cried Greg.

‘Nah. That’s Natalie’s department,’ I sneered. ‘Anyway, let’s get going. I’ve had enough of small-time operators. It’s time we sorted our act out and got a decent deal.’

‘See you next week then,’ said Lucas.

‘Fine. Don’t be late. Coming Millie?’

‘Yeah.’ She said, gathering up her coat and bag and pecking Greg and Lucas on the cheek. ‘See you later.’

I didn’t know you wrote such bloody awful poetry …

Quite where we went wrong, I don’t know. Things started well enough, with even Elliott showing up for regular rehearsals. We booked two days at Street Sounds Studios and managed to record four decent tracks without too many hassles. We optimistically burnt handfuls of cds to carry around and dish out to anyone we met who we thought could help. We even played a couple of gigs in Camden, supporting a couple dreadful indie bands, performing their Coldplay-lite ballads to thoroughly bored audiences. We never heard from Lester again, and furthermore we didn’t manage to attract any other label’s interest. Like Peter Fonda’s contemplative words at the end of Easy Rider, it looked like ‘we’d blown it.’ By the time we met Withnail in WaxWerks we were on the verge of calling it a day, having lost Elliott almost permanently to Natalie’s bosom and all our meagre earnings to scurrilous rehearsal studios.

‘Paul King Stole My Haircut’ – Chapter 10

‘Paul King Stole My Haircut’ – Chapter 10

Sleep comes down …

We’d been patient for nearly eighteen months. We didn’t have the patience of saints. Oh no. We had the patience of saints, nuns, priests and every god, deity or idol in existence. We were reaching breaking point, not just professionally, but personally too. The strength of Millie and my partnership kept us together when things were shit, and we shared the highs as well as the lows. Trouble was, we’d lately had considerably more lows than highs.

We would leap to the top of the mountain with a call from a manager of a producer gushing on about how great we were. Then we’d begin the long and slow descent to base camp, uncertain of our future and racked with self-doubt, exasperated by empty promises and broken commitments.

We’d one record deal, three sets of managers and been through umpteen producers. We’d played a sum total of five gigs and had found and lost three drummers, two bassists, a keyboard player and in a mad moment of lunacy, a flautist. But still Millie and I persisted. We argued about the smallest things related to the band, but never doubted each other’s determination, both to our career and to ourselves.

I looked at her sleeping peacefully on the bed. When I was calm, Millie was anxious. When she was apprehensive and agitated, I remained unruffled and assured. We worked perfectly together. She had enthusiasm, a sparkling smile, a dream of a voice to go with my own daydreams. We were on the same wavelength, laughed at the same things, cried at the same things. She sang her words to my music. It was a 50:50 deal.

Her feet, still stuck inside her boots, dangled off the bed. I gently pulled them off and hooked her feet round. I wrapped the duvet over her shoulders and brushed her elegant nose with the tip of my little finger. She briefly stirred and blinked sleepily, giving a half smile before settling down again.

I wandered into the kitchen and filled two glasses of water. Back in the bedroom I placed the glasses on the bedside table, then carefully eased myself on top of the duvet next to Millie. Lying on my back I stared hard at the cracks in the ceiling and then turned to look at the neon glow of Millie’s digital radio alarm clock. 11:45. I heard the front door slam and listened as Edmund Druhan methodically made his way up the two flights of stairs to his flat. He was home uncharacteristically early. I counted the steps he took to his bathroom – five, six, seven, eight. The cistern flushed. Taps ran. More steps – three, four, five. The ceiling heaved as I imagined him lowering himself into bed. No telly tonight, I thought. I hope he’s all right. 11:59. ‘… Pumping like a fugitive, in cover from the night …’. Blondie’s song was like a teenage joy-rider in my head, intent on ram-raiding my eyelids. I turned over and buried my head in the pillow. It was going to be a long, restless night.

To sleep, perchance to dream…

As Millie’s alarm clock blinked over to 3:07 I decided to raid the fridge. My stomach felt hollow and I didn’t want the rumble to waken her. Despite me inconsiderately downing both glasses of water, I had a sandstorm raging in my mouth. It didn’t help that the flat was constantly dusty, thanks to our selfish landlord’s refusal to replace the threadbare carpet. The poor, tatty thing looked as if it had been specially flown in from the Gobi desert, such was the content of sand, grit and dry dirt. No matter how hard we tried to Hoover and brush up the crap, our floor could have easily been mistaken for a cross between Camber Sands and a crash safety pit at Silverstone. The vacuum cleaner our landlord Mr Kuan-Yin begrudgingly provided actually spewed out more dust than it sucked in.

I crept across the floor and made my way into the kitchen. It was bitterly cold, even for February, and my breath formed vapours of mist in the air. For once I was grateful for having gone to bed in my clothes, and I pulled my jacket tight around my middle in an attempt to keep warm. My damp All Stars squeaked on the ancient linoleum tiles, once virgin white and clinically clean; now turgid pale beige, splattered with innumerate stains of dubious origin, and curled up edges like a two-day old sandwich. I knelt down and pulled open the fridge door. It juddered and hummed, then emitted a weak, yellowy light. Inside were the remnants of the milk, a couple of pots of Millie’s favourite low-fat yoghurts, half a tomato, some limp, out-of-date salad leaves, a tub of margarine and a solitary can of John Smith’s. That would do. I reached for the can and slammed the door.

With drink in hand I stood staring out of the kitchen window. The back of our street had previously been a stable block, and only recently converted into luxurious town houses and flats. The cobbled yard was fitted with flush lighting, which smouldered serenely in the dark night. Various cars were parked outside each flat: nearly all top of the range models – a black BMW 3 series, a red Toyota Celica convertible, one of the new design Beetles, in a startling purple finish. Nearly all the lights were out, except for the living room of the group of Japanese students who were renting one of the bigger houses. Even at three in the morning, I could still see one of the male students beavering away on a computer, his long, sleek hair cascading over the keyboard as he typed furiously. The students often kept Millie and I amused with their antics. They were naively and blissfully unaware of the stuffy residents around them, and would often play ball games in and around the precious cars, or excitedly perform antics in front of an audience of gathered friends – singing, dancing and joking. They seemed particularly enamoured with a pastime that involved something on satellite TV, and then participating in doing jerky movements and silly dances. Millie and I couldn’t work it out. We could only imagine it was like watching the Generation Game, and actually participating in the tasks and challenges at home.

On the floor above them, lived a young threesome: two blokes and a girl. We couldn’t fathom their relationship at all. When they first moved in the girl, tall and slender with legs seemingly up to her armpits, mousy brown hair and a penchant for crimson blusher, appeared constantly wrapped around one of the guys. The ‘lucky’ chosen one was lean, muscular and tanned, a look spoilt somewhat by small, piggy eyes, a shaven head and numerous tattoos.

They had access to a roof terrace, and on sunny days the couple regularly climbed a flimsy iron ladder armed with picnic hamper, radio and warm blankets. Then, a few weeks later, the third man, who was short, stocky and obsessed with black clothes began to join them. In a kind of relay, once one bloke had climbed the ladder the other would descend it.

The second suitor had long, greasy hair parted down the middle, like an aging rocker, and he too seemed infatuated with the girl. He was one of those arrogant types you see on the tube or in the street: always talking loudly on a mobile phone while pacing up and down. On warm days, when we had the windows open, you could hear his voice echoing around the courtyard; ‘…buy low … sell high… ciao … later …’ Once he saw me looking at him across the yard and waved. But I didn’t wave back.

And you’ve been working all day, all day, all day …

The rest of the people came and went their daily business without much fuss. Off to work by nine, then home in time for the repeat showing of Neighbours. Again, song lyrics filled my mind, this time Cat Stevens: “…Matthew and Son, the work’s never done, there’s always something new … the files in your hand, you take them to bed, you’re never ever through …” So it paid for the house and the car and the holiday in Venice but it wasn’t what I wanted. Guaranteed, I envied the secluded flats with their brand new furniture and the BMW to take you anywhere. I rented a crappy flat with shitty décor and dirty furnishings, and had to endure smelly and unreliable London transport and all the other lunatic passengers. But I didn’t have to arse lick my way around a Team Leader or a Pensions Manager or a Head of Department to get what I wanted. Oh no. All I had to do was deal with morons like Joe Matthews, spoilt mummy’s boys like Elliott and life-wasters like Simon.

It reminded me that I still had to deal with Elliott, which had been keeping me awake at night for a couple of months. Now Simon was also back in my conscious, I had two problems to resolve. It always seemed to happen like this. We took one step forward, ridding ourselves of Joe and gaining the services of Splash, and then we took two backwards, trying to appease Elliott and sorting out Simon. I slurped at my beer, which was by now flat and unappealing. My tape-reel clock showed 4:32. I tipped the rest of the beer away down the sink and lobbed the can into the waste paper bin, catching my reflection in the kitchen window. My spikey, unkempt hair would have won first prize in a Johnny Rotten competition, and the grey circles under my eyes appeared bigger than ever. I blinked slowly, hoping that the vision would fade, and in its place would materialize the youthful-looking, effervescent boy who first though he could leave Buckton Heath and take on and beat the music industry single-handedly, armed with a battery operated Casio keyboard, a set of pop songs and a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. Where did it all go?

‘Paul King Stole My Haircut’ – Chapter 9

‘Paul King Stole My Haircut’ – Chapter 9

You have to have a party, when you’re in a state like this …

It was quite a walk from North Woolwich station, and Millie and I shuddered every few steps as we scurried along the Woolwich Road. Happily, the rain had eased off, although cars and buses still splashed through isolated puddles of icy cold water lying dormant on the road. I repeatedly checked my inside jacket pocket for the copy of our CD that I had brought along to impress Splash. Failing that, Millie looked every inch a popstar-in-waiting. She nervously squeezed my arm as we turned into Cleveley Close and walked past the White Horse pub, just outside the entrance to Maryon Park.

‘We’re here, aren’t we?’ she whispered.

‘Yeah, looks like it,’ I said.

‘Which way’s the party?’

‘Splash mentioned something about it being on the south side,’ I replied. ‘Let’s have a look at the A to Z.’

‘Here,’ she said, running her finger across page 82. ‘That’s where we came in. If we go up this way, we’ll go past the tennis courts and then carry on straight to the south side.’

‘Good,’ I said, tucking the A to Z safely away and leading Millie by the hand into the park. ‘Let’s go.’

We walked along the narrow gravel path, our feet crunching in harmony beneath us. Once past the tennis courts we climbed up Cox`s Mount, we paused to take in the view over South East London, looking down on the Thames Barrier, Charlton Athletic’s football ground and the sight of the once depressing and desolate Millennium Dome, now transformed into a fantastic arena to rival Wembley and the NEC. One day, I kept telling myself, one day.

The cold February north wind blew through the naked tree branches, with the same eerie effect as in Blow Up, ethereal and ghostly. Over the hill we could make out some lights and shadowy silhouettes against the translucent canvass of a large, billowing marquee. I tugged on Millie’s sleeve and we bravely strode forward across the damp grass, eager to investigate. As we walked closer the sound of ambient dance music filled the air and we identified the lights as a collection of flame-lit torches, plunged deep into the turf. I figured there must have been at least a hundred people gathered together, all absorbed in their own conversations, drinking, smoking or gyrating on the spot to the haunting, evocative music.

I looked around at the other people at the party, who seemed blissfully unaware of the cold or the strange location. There were plenty who looked like Withnail – longhaired, flowing or tie-dyed clothes, similar to the stragglers from a Woodstock concert. I half expected to see John Sebastian, with his acoustic guitar slung over his back talking to Jimi Hendrix, or Mama Cass enjoying a joke with Barry Maguire and Roger McGuinn. A gaggle of stick-thin women wandered by, wannabe footballer’s wives, with long straight hair, high cheekbones and pert noses. A gang of young guys resembled the stage crew at an Oasis concert from 1996, with baggy, flared jeans and beany hats, doing that swaggered walk which gave the impression they’d just done a load in their pants. A few of the younger-looking girls looked like Hollyoaks’ auditionees with their pot-bellies, iron-flattened hair and over-zealous application of lip-gloss. Their male partners may just as feasibly have completed a photo-shoot for a Gap commercial, dressed in casual jeans and roll-neck sweaters, their floppy, curtain-fringed hair blowing without reserve in the icy wind.

The music being pumped out from a plethora of loudspeakers had a hypnotic quality to it, and for a brief moment I imagined myself on a tropical beach surrounded by swaying palm trees and local fishermen balanced on tall poles in the crashing surf, patiently waiting for a bite. Any minute now, Simon Le Bon would surely come striding through the breaking waves in a pair of white trousers, a young child perched across his shoulders, singing a song while the rest of Duran Duran sat astride elephants, strumming guitars and blowing into pan pipes.

Millie tugged at my sleeve.

‘You all right Jon?’ she asked.

I rubbed my eyes, which were starting to sting with all the smoke.

‘Yeah, fine.’

‘I’m cold,’ she shivered.

‘Let’s move towards one of the torches,’ I suggested, pulling her arm around my waist and pointing with my free hand.

We were drawn towards the light and the warmth of the fires, and advanced confidently up to one of the naked flames. Although still anxious, we intermingled with the other partygoers, the pressing need to thaw out our frozen hands overriding any feelings of apprehension. As we were gratefully rubbing our palms together I felt a tap on my shoulder and a voice interrupting our own excited chatter.

‘Hellooooooo you two. You made it then?’

I recognised the West Country drawl immediately.

‘Hi Withnail,’ replied Millie, turning round and giving him a wide smile. ‘Didn’t know you were coming. How’s it going?’

She gave him a hug and then stood on tiptoe to peck him on the cheek.

‘Great,’ he said, puffing away nonchalantly on a straggly looking cigarette.

He breathed out a stream of white smoke through his long nose. The smell was sweet and comforting.

‘Where’s this Splash character then?’ I asked.

‘Oh you’ll meet him soon,’ smiled Withnail. ‘There’s no hurry. Have a drink and a smoke and then I’ll introduce you.’

‘Ok,’ said Millie. ‘Where can we get a beer?’

‘See. There!’

Withnail waved a bony finger at the entrance of the marquee. We ducked our heads under the door flap and approached a large, elongated table, groaning under the weight of several casks of wine and countless bottles of beer. I grabbed two bottles of Becks and slammed the lids against the table and they flew off. I was proud of my one and only party trick. We chinked bottles, said ‘cheers’ and took a large swig. The beer was cold and hurt my teeth, but nevertheless I took another gulp and screwed up my eyes as the arctic liquid slid down my throat.

When, will I, will I be famous?

Drinks in hand, we wandered out side the marquee and mingled amongst the gathering of ‘beautiful’ people, high on dope, alcohol and the arrogance of youth. The air was citrus sweet with perfumed laughter and alcohol-induced conviviality. It was like no other party either of us had attended. Talk was of this television project and that promotions package and the other record release date. Names such as Melvyn, Angus and Henry were dropped as casually as a Cockney losing their ‘H’s. I was sure I could recognise a few, semi-well-known faces and voices amongst the crowd – an early-evening newscaster, a breakfast telly host, a London radio DJ. Or maybe not.

‘Hey!’ nudged Millie. ‘Spot the famous person.’

‘Who?’ I whispered.

‘That girl from Hollyoaks.’

‘What girl from Hollyoaks?’

‘The blonde one.’

‘Well that doesn’t narrow it down much,’ I hissed. ‘They’re all blonde, aren’t they?’

‘You know,’ said Millie, digging me in the ribs. ‘Kim Munch.’

‘Kim Munch? That her real name or her character’s name?’

‘Her real name!’

I shook my head.

‘No, it just looks like her. Still, ten points for you though.’

Millie looked pleased. Even though it wasn’t the real Kim Munch she’d earned herself ten valuable points in our little game. ‘Spot The Famous Person’ had started back in Buckton Heath, when a group of us had seen a tall, gangly youth coming out of Halfords, looking like Extreme guitarist Nuno Bettencourt. ‘Spot the famous person!’ our mate Darren had cried, pointing excitedly. ‘Nuno Bettencourt. Hello Nuno!’

From then on, anyone with more than a passing resemblance to a celebrity was subject to the rules of the game. In the confines of Buckton Heath, point scoring opportunities were somewhat limited, apart from the glut of Cure fans who thought they looked like Robert Smith. Pretty soon we’d devised an intricate system of allocating points, based on accuracy of look, gender and whether the recipient was dead, alive, real or a cartoon or fictional character. Hence the guy who worked in Woolworth’s on the record counter who might have passed for Ryan Giggs only scored five points, as he was virtually bald. On the other hand, Millie ‘spotted’ a woman looking like comedian Paul Merton, and was consequently awarded fifteen points. If anyone actually ‘spotted’ a real famous person, they lost ten points. In Buckton Heath everyone’s account was in credit.

I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo …

As we warmed ourselves against one of the torches, I sensed someone’s beery breath, right up against the side of my face. I turned to see a red-haired man, with wild, staring eyes and a loud Hawaiian shirt, open to the naval.

‘You in the music business?’ he slurred, his voice grating and rasping like sandpaper.

‘Er, yeah. Sort of,’ I replied, somewhat startled by the unwarranted intrusion.

‘Take my advice son,’ he began. ‘Get out now. It’s not worth it. The music industry will eat you up whole, and then spit you out.’

When he said the word ‘spit’ I literally got an eyeful of phlegm as he gnashed his teeth and pursed his lips violently.

‘Listen son,’ he continued. ‘Are you in a band?’

I nodded.

‘Forget it,’ the stranger spat. ‘Bands are shite. No one wants bands anymore. All they want is a pretty face.’

He paused.

‘Or arse.’

He looked at me carefully, studying my face and shaking his head. I stayed quiet. Then he pointed at Millie.

‘Now that!’ he exclaimed. ‘That’s more like it!’

Who was this bitter and twisted old fart who was pissed off because not only did he not like current music, but it didn’t like him? The stranger started fumbling about in his trouser pocket and pulled out two mobile phones. He thrust one in my face.

‘This,’ he began, ‘holds all the numbers for every restaurant and private club in west London.’

‘Oh!’ I gasped, struggling for air.

‘All I have to do,’ he continued, ‘is call any one I like and say, “I want a table and I want one ready in half an hour”, and no matter how full they are I will get a table.’

‘Great!’ I said, desperately trying to sound impressed. In truth, I was tiring of this annoying little man, lost in another decade when he was relevant.

‘And this phone,’ he said, swapping handsets, ‘will get me any cab to go anywhere and any time.’

I wanted to dare to suggest that he called one, but in his own mind, he was now holding court. This man was King, and I a mere subject: forelock tugging and worshipping at his feet. I wanted to tell him to shut the fuck up, but his eyes glazed with Cocaine fury and his tongue was like a juggernaut careering out of control.

‘Oi Darlin’’, he called to Millie, who was desperately avoiding his gaze by fiddling with the tassels on her belt. ‘Over ‘ere!’

Millie, frightened by his coarse, gravelly voice and belligerent manner, cautiously sidled up to me.

‘Hello’, she whispered, warily offering her hand.

The man took her small palm in his bear-like grip and squeezed it hard. Millie flinched and tried hard to conceal any pain. He leant over across me, to whisper in her ear. Whether deliberately or not, he spoke just loudly enough for me to catch what he said.

‘Listen Babe,’ he began. ‘Lose the boyfriend, lose the band and I’ll take you to America and make you a star.’

Millie shuddered.

‘But don’t tell anyone,’ he continued, lowering his voice slightly. ‘The record labels over here … well, they don’t like me, so don’t say anything. OK?’

Millie nodded, more out of fear than agreement.

‘Here’s my number,’ the man growled, reaching into the pocket of his Hawaiian shirt and slipping Millie a grotty piece of card. ‘Call me.’

He slurped Millie on the side of the face in a parting gesture and staggered off into the crowd of partygoers.

‘Urgh!’ exclaimed Millie, wiping away saliva from her cheek with her jacket sleeve. ‘What a fucking creep!’

‘Who’s a creep?’ a thick, woolly voice said from behind us.

I recognised the accent and turned around.

‘Splash?’ I said.

‘Too fuckin’ right,’ came the reply. ‘Was that arsehole bothering you two?’

He’s no big deal, he’s just a wideboy …

We finally got our chance to look at Splash. He wasn’t like I imagined. On the phone, his gruff, cockney tones conjured up an image of a south London gangster, all black-suited and smart, with a fist full of large, gold sovereign rings and maybe fingers tattoos. Either that, or a wideboy: flashy and cool with bundles of pound notes emerging from every crevice. Instead, he was quite casually dressed; jeans and a zip-up top, with a pair of designer Calvin Klein glasses perched on the ridge of his nose. I guessed he was in his early thirties, but it was hard to tell. All around Soho and the West End, media types in their fifties still dressed like twenty-somethings. He had close-cropped hair, brushed forwards in a French cut and long, sleek sideburns. His jeans were drainpipe straight, leading down to a pair of grey and green Converse Allstars. It was an image far removed from the usual music industry stereotype, as portrayed by the likes of Jimmy Nail – cowboy boots, leather jacket, bootlace tie and a Stetson. For someone so immaculately dressed, it was bizarre to hear such coarse diction.

‘I said, was that wanker bothering you?’

‘Oh you know,’ said Millie, gradually recovering her composure. ‘Just the usual crap and bullshit you get in the music business. Who was he anyway?’

‘Oh no-one you kids would have heard of,’ assured Splash.

‘No, do tell us,’ I insisted. ‘Is he a friend of yours?’

‘Just take my word,’ said Splash. ‘You don’t want to get involved with that bloke.’

Millie looked at the card the stranger had given her. Her face dropped and she hurriedly screwed up the card and threw it on the ground.

‘Fair enough,’ she said brusquely, giving me a look that said ‘change the subject, don’t say anymore.’

I felt we’d better introduce ourselves.

‘I’m Jon,’ I said, ‘and this is Millie.’

‘I guessed, didn’t I?’ said Splash. ‘Withnail told me all about you. Gorgeous chick who pouts for England and a tall, skinny, songwriter geezer who wears flares.’

‘S’pose that’s us,’ I said, not sure whether Splash was entirely accurate. ‘Except the flares. These jeans are bootcut!’

I waved my right foot in the air.

‘See, no flapping.’

Splash screwed up his face.

‘Bootcut my arse,’ he said with derision. ‘As far as I’m concerned, that’s flares. We didn’t go through Punk Rock for nothing, son. People died so subsequent generations wouldn’t have to wear flares. Sid Vicious was a martyr to the cause!’

I had no answer to that. Splash could see I was thinking hard about what he’d just said and decided to change tack.

‘What’s the deal with Joe Matthews then?’ he asked.

‘You know him?’ Millie said.

‘Oh, his handle comes up from time to time,’ said Splash, rubbing his chin. ‘He’s got a bit of a reputation.’

‘What for?’ she asked.

‘Fucking things up, that’s what,’ replied Splash. ‘And then accusing every bastard but himself of making a dog’s dick of it all.’

‘Sounds like Joe,’ I mumbled.

‘Yeah, he takes on projects he can’t handle and then blames the band, the manager, the record label, the price of bread, the Beatles splitting up, the number of fish in the air …’

We laughed again. Splash seemed to warm to our company and continued his rant.

‘Then, when it all goes Pete Tong, he hides behind his friendship with Jake Beckford. The record labels don’t want to piss off Jake, just in case there is one more fuckin’ golden egg up the goose’s arse just waiting to pop out.’

I felt our CD in my pocket and wondered if it was the right time to broach Splash on the subject of helping us. I began tugging at the disc, at the same time beginning a speech about ‘here’s our cd, and can you help?’ but Splash grabbed my hand.

‘Look boy,’ he said, taking off his glasses and pretending to examine them. ‘I don’t need to hear no demos. I take it they’re all crap, right?’

We both nodded. Splash bit into the arm of his glasses.

‘I can do something for you both,’ he chewed. ‘I’ve got my own place in town, and I’ll sort you out a few days and we’ll make some noise, talk some bollocks and see how we get on. OK?’

‘We can’t pay you, though,’ said Millie.

‘No problem,’ replied Splash. ‘If it all works out, we’ll all be fuckin’ rich. Happy as pigs in shit.’

Once again Withnail seemed to have pointed us back in the right direction. Splash seemed a genuine enough character, and in any case, it would be extremely foolish of us in our delicate predicament to turn down the offer of free studio time. Millie and I smiled at each other and I offered my hand to Splash again, this time in thanks. Splash shrugged, modestly and offered to fetch more beer. However, just as we were accepting a low, throbbing sound reverberated around the party. Splash stood frozen to his spot, looking nervously around. Other guests had stopped mid-conversation and there was a chilling stillness, save for the hazy sound of the party’s ambient rhythms. Then unexpectedly, wailing sirens and blue flashing lights interrupted the music and like tribes of Red Indians, a line of white and black cars appeared on the ridge above the park. The main group of party guests started to bleat and howl like frightened sheep caught in a thunderstorm and all of a sudden there was movement everywhere. The noise level rapidly increased as people began shouting indiscriminately and running in all directions.

‘FUCK!’ hollered Splash.

‘What’s up?’ I asked.

‘Fuckin’ old bill!’ he screamed.

‘What’s the matter?’ asked Millie. ‘Aren’t we supposed to be here?’

‘Course not!’ he replied. ‘Public park, innit? All this fire, all this dope and other shit.’

He looked at his watch.

‘Hmmmmm. Nine forty-five. Not bad I s’pose. Thought they’d be here well before now.’

Despite the panic, he seemed strangely pleased.

‘Er, word of advice to you two,’ he said.

‘Yeah,’ I said, expecting some sort of brilliant guidance regarding our music careers.

‘Run like fuck!’

Confusion and flashing lights …

I grabbed Millie by the arm and yanked her off in the direction of the other fleeing partygoers. We raced back up over the top of Cox’s Mount, hearts racing and blood pumping furiously. We both panted like overweight lap dogs on a walk in the heat of the day, totally unfit from our London lifestyle of inhaling bus fumes and travelling around on the tube. As we reached the top of the Mount, I turned, red faced and breathless, to see the remnants of Splash’s party. People were hastily dismantling the sound system and snuffing out the torches. Policemen were busy confiscating as much of the alcohol as they could and loading it into the back of a white van, which had belatedly trundled over the hill. It seemed fairly orderly, as if the people involved seemed quite used to this procedure, and no one looked as if they were being arrested. That is apart from a red-haired man in a loud Hawaiian shirt furiously struggling with two police officers who had grappled him to the ground. His feet were kicking wildly as his face was being pushed into the wet, muddy ground. The unmistakable outline of Splash could be seen gesturing feverishly with his hands to a group of officers, his shoulders shrugging and his head shaking from side to side. One of the officers in a peaked cap stabbed a pointy finger in Splash’s chest and then wagged it about in front of his face, like an old-fashioned schoolteacher ticking off a naughty pupil.

‘I hope Splash isn’t going to be in trouble,’ said Millie.

‘He’ll be fine,’ drawled a low voice next to us.

It was Withnail. Although we’d all been running, he appeared calm and unflustered, and not at all breathless. He coolly lit a rollup and sucked hard.

‘This sort of thing always happens at any gathering Splash organises,’ he explained. ‘It’s a game he plays with the police.’

‘How’s that?’ I asked, as we began walking slowly back to the main road.

‘He used to run a really successful club night, at Cryogenics just over the River.   All he did was hire up-and-coming DJs to play the latest underground tunes. There was never any bother, ‘cos he spent a load of cash on security. Only not the usual meatheads. These people were associates and dug the music scene as much as the punters. Sods Law, though, after eighteen trouble-free months it took one moron to start a fight outside the club and the powers that be were down on Splash like a ton of bricks.’

‘Why?’ Millie asked. ‘When he hadn’t done anything wrong.’

‘Competition from another club whose owner was part of the old funny handshake brigade. All they needed was an excuse. They had all the people in authority they needed in the right places. The police, the magistrates, the local council. They closed Splash down and put some kind of order on him preventing him running any other club within a 30 mile radius.’

‘Shit!’ exclaimed Millie. ‘What bastards!’

‘Exactly,’ said Withnail. ‘So Splash decides to have a little fun. He sets up all these one-nighters at places our brave boys in blue won’t suspect. Sometimes he gets away with it and it goes off all night. Other times he gets caught in the first hour.’

‘Brilliant!’ I said.

‘Yeah. Once he had a party going off just behind Scotland Yard, right under their noses. Boy, did that piss them off. Trouble is, the police have wised up to his ways, and he’s had to move further and further away from central London. Hence, Maryon Park tonight. Next time, we may even be further away. I know he’s thinking of trying something at the new Wembley Stadium site.’

‘What happens when they catch him?’

‘Oh, he gets fined for public order offences, but never anything more. His brief has an uncanny knack of getting Splash the most lenient of punishments. Strange that. Never quite worked it out.’

We reached the edge of the park and looked for the nearest bus stop. Withnail saw us examining our tickets and told us to put them away. As if by magic, a black cab appeared and Withnail waved it down with a flourish of his long sleeve. I couldn’t believe it. A black cab for hire. At this time of night. South of the river! Withnail reminded me of Fonzie in Happy Days. I wondered if he could get a jukebox to play just by banging it?

‘There’s a bit of luck,’ Withnail smiled, as if genuinely surprised. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll get the fare.’

Millie gave him a hug and a peck on the cheek.

‘Thanks,’ she whispered in his ear.

You laugh at her in all the cars …

We hopped in the back of cab, and started the long journey back to Kentish Town. As we drove through the Blackwall Tunnel I suddenly realised that Splash hadn’t got our number or anything. I also wasn’t sure whether he’d be locked up indefinitely. I asked Withnail what we should do. He told us not to worry and to be patient. Splash would call us in good time. I nodded wearily. I hated not knowing, and once again we would be left in suspension. Still, it had been an experience and more fun than staying in, in front of the telly, shouting abuse at Justin Lee Collins or having to endure Elton John bleating his way through his latest drivel to a thoroughly bored-looking Jonathon Ross Show audience. As we sped along the East India Dock Road towards Limehouse and the City, I looked at Withnail as his eyelids grew heavy and his head began drooping forwards. Millie lay across my lap most of the way, and seemed to be fast asleep. I stroked her soft, long hair and wound the ends around her ear. The cab’s engine throbbed on and on, as we negotiated the ongoing road works at Liverpool Street station and navigated the one-way system around Shoreditch.

I turned my gaze to the back of the cab driver’s head, bobbing and weaving underneath a brown, corduroy flat cap, as the car weaved around the Old Street roundabout, rapidly changing lanes and heading up towards Angel. We’d be home soon, in the relative sanctity of our flat.

As I stared blankly out of the misty cab window, trying to make out street names to see exactly where we were, I wondered what a ‘normal’ life might be like. One where when you wake up you know exactly what you’re doing that day, that week and even that year. One where things don’t get cancelled at the last minute and promises don’t get broken. I often craved stability, but then that was the last thing I could expect from the music business. Things either happened all at the same time or not at all. We were either totally exalted or thoroughly depressed. Tonight had been a buzz: tomorrow and the rest of the week would probably be mind-numbingly dull. I looked at the taxi driver again and wondered if he was happy, driving around London all day and night, all on his own? Fortunately, we soon arrived in Kentish Town and my thoughts turned to waking Millie up.

We stumbled out of the cab, said our goodbyes and thanked the driver. I slammed the door shut and waved Withnail off, on his way back to Camden. Millie rubbed her eyes and yawned, as I fumbled for my key. We squelched upstairs to the flat, our jeans, trainers and boots still sodden from the wet, park grass. Flopping on the bed in a heap still fully clothed, Millie closed her eyes and snuggled up to her pillow. Her chest rose and fell and she breathed deeply through her nose. It a minute or so she would be fast asleep, dreaming of appearing at Wembley and taking black cabs everywhere. I wished I could curl up next to her and drop off immediately, but my mind wouldn’t shut off. Withnail’s words echoed around my brain, like a squash ball pinging off the court walls in every conceivable angle; ‘…be patient … be patient … be patient…’

‘Paul King Stole My Haircut’ – Chapter 8

‘Paul King Stole My Haircut’ – Chapter 8

I wanna be a teenage, TV popstar …

Weekends were a drag. From late Friday afternoon to first thing Monday morning. There were no phone calls and only junk e-mails from companies in America trying to sell Viagra, sleeping aids, weight-loss programmes or penis enlargement pills. This Saturday was typically representative of the last few months. In our living area, Millie was absorbed in some version of Multi-Coloured-Saturday-Going-Kickin’-UK children’s television show. On screen, a pram-faced, golden retriever-haired girl in a ridiculous tutu-leggings ensemble, crop-top and glittery eye make-up was paying needless compliments to an all-dancing, all-miming pop puppet whose latest record had barely scraped into the top thirty.

The presenter’s beaming face, all snow-blitzed white teeth and plum lip gloss, turned dramatically 90 degrees to face another camera, thrusting the microphone close to her succulent lips in fellatio fashion. With burbled, carefully constructed script, peppered with unintelligible pre-teen jargon, she announced the arrival on-stage-with-a-live-world-exclusive-never-been-heard-before-latest-single-from-the-Channel-Four-Popstar-Factory-TV-show-didn’t-quite-win-but-got-a-record-deal-anyway-cos-she-shagged-someone-in-the-record-company, Lou C and her version of The Rubettes’ 1970’s classic, ‘Sugar Baby Love’.

The television cameras circled menacingly, like one of the intimidating creatures in Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’. Spotting their prey, each lens swooped spectacularly down onto the set, then plummeted like a Stukka bomber into the neckline of Lou C, all baubles and bangles and pumped up trainers. Behind the singer, two cute, tight-assed boys plucked from The London School of Generic Dancing writhed and gyrated like embarrassing relatives dancing to ‘Agadoo’ at a town hall wedding reception. At the back of the stage, four trained musicians wrestled as much with their unplugged instruments as they obviously wrestled with their consciousnesses when trying to decide whether or not to take this gig.

Lou C bounded effortlessly across the stage, with each wiggle of her hips or suggestive hand gesture triggering a high frequency, involuntary scream from the pre-pubescent audience. During the ‘quiet bit’ in the song, Lou C stood like a statue while floodlights lit her up in a veil of white light, and a wind machine blew back her shoulder length blonde hair. She looked like a portrait of sanctity and purity. Lou C adjusted her headset microphone mouthpiece in carefully choreographed Michael Jackson style, and a few members of the crowd shrieked in delight. The drummer then kicked in with a quick roll, the bass player’s fingers throbbed the neck of his guitar and Lou C was off again, leaping like a gazelle in fear of its life from a particularly famished lion, stalking the African plains.

When her song had finished, the camera’s rollercoaster ride continued back towards a vacant-stared guest presenter – a curtain-haired, boy band bookend. With glazed expression, desperately trying to focus on the autocue a few feet in front of him, his monotone voice announced the next act.

It’s Nothing, the latest Boy Band to top the charts, sat uniformly on a row of stools, microphones unfailing in synch, legs crossed and uncrossed in harmony, fingers pointing skywards as the high notes approached. It was the kind of accomplished mime show that even Marcel Marceau would have been proud of.

I just work for the weekend …

I left Millie to the futility of shouting at the television and wandered back into the bedroom. On hands and knees I fumbled for the radio that I’d kicked in fury underneath the bed, after hearing one of Coldplay’s dreary songs for the umpteenth time on Centrepoint AM. Calling all university Ents Officers: one of your bands is missing! Despite being a music lover I actually couldn’t stand music radio. Given the choice between some over-excited former holiday camp redcoat spurting street-slang gibberish, or some hideous Ibiza ‘lovin’ it- lovin’ it- lovin’ it’ claptrap, with it’s nonsensical lyrics and drum beats that sounded like someone had fallen over a pile of cardboard boxes, I’d rather stick my fingers into a rotary mower or join David Sneddon’s fan club. Some stations boasted ‘hits only’ radio, where in all honesty you’d struggle to find anything that wasn’t Meat Loaf, Simply Red or Sting.

I had once briefly dabbled with some hip Indie station, only to find myself thoroughly depressed after a quarter of an hour from all the complaining that seemed to be going on. No, I felt that I would rather eat my own sick or chew off my right arm than listen to all that again.

As it was the weekend, the preference lay between sport or Centrepoint AM’s cheery review of this week’s record releases, the television highlights of the week and a look at what’s on at the cinema. I didn’t want to hear rave reviews of the latest Eurythmics’ single, Judy Dench’s BAFTA winning performance of a woman who acted and sounded exactly like Judy Dench, or Tom Cruise’s latest Oscar nomination for his portrayal of an intense person with perfect hair. Instead, I reluctantly tuned the dial and interrupted Radio Argue’s sports phone-in programme.

Right, on the line now we have Gary from Newcastle,’ gushed presenter Steve Feeley. ‘Gary, what’s your opinion on the way the manager up there has handled the situation regarding the speculation over the transfer of the Portuguese international Mario de Silva to your club?’

Hello Gary.’

Gary, can you turn your radio off?’

Hello Steve. It’s Gary here from Newcastle.’

Gary. What do you make of the situation? Is it fair?’

Uh, Steve, I think the club have only got themselves to blame.’

Do you really Gary. Well, thanks for that Gary. Gary there, from Newcastle, who thinks the club have only got themselves to blame over the speculation which has been rife over the past week, up there, in Newcastle. Next on the line, we have Ben from Plymouth. Ben, what’ve you got for us?’

Steve?’

Yes, Ben?’

Steve. I’ve got a footballer’s big moustache eleven for you. Shall I read it out? In goal – David Seaman. Right back – Kenny Sansom. Left back – Mick Mills. MidfieldJimmy ……. ‘

Thank you Ben. Fascinating. Now we have Dean Collins, the Stockport County midfielder, who today plays against his former teammates at Carlisle United. Good morning Dean, and how are you?’

Yeah.’

Great stuff. So, are you looking forward to today’s game, Dean?’

Er yeah. Well it will be a tough game but hopefully if the lads work hard and we take our chances, hopefully we’ll get a result.’

Tell us about your new boss there at Stockport, Clive Evans.’

Yeah, basically, no, well, the Gaffa’s come in and he’s done a good job and at the end of the day we’ll hopefully put a good run together which will hopefully pull us up the table, and hopefully …. ‘

Maybe I should seriously consider chewing off my right arm!

The radio suffered physical violence once again, this time being thrown at the wall. I spent the rest of the day reading last night’s newspaper while Millie busied herself with something or other. I never quite understood how she kept herself pre-occupied with seemingly completely useless tasks, like washing her hair or flicking aimlessly through copies of i-D magazine, comparing different shades of eyeliner and lipstick application techniques. Millie didn’t seem to mind the constant bombardment in the papers and on TV of pretty young things who were all style and no substance. To her they were all irrelevant and she could happily gaze at the screen or stare at the videos without feeling resentful of their undeserved star status. Personally, I couldn’t stand it. How dare these people be famous and doing the job I wanted to do, when they hadn’t bothered to learn an instrument or sit down to write some intelligent lyrics. They’d merely entered a talent contest or replied to an ad in The Stage. Of course I knew the answer. It was easy to respond to an ad and let someone else do the work for you. I also knew that Millie and I had chosen the hardest profession in the world to be respected in. If we were successful, it would be put down to Millie’s pretty face and lovely long hair. If not, we would be derided for trying to promote Millie’s looks ahead of our songs.

I remembered reading in the real Richard E. Grant’s book how he hated seeing all the happy and successful faces beaming down at him from the front covers of magazines in newsagents, when he was a struggling actor. I felt the same when I had to endure the latest indie discoveries plastered across the N.M.E., touted as the latest saviours of the ailing British music industry, or watch plastic teen puppets miming away with their perfect teeth, flawless skin and hairless chins. My latest philosophy was to consider what songs teen popstars would be singing in twenty years time when all the classics from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s had been plundered, and no musicians like Phil Collins or Elton John had been signed and therefore given the opportunity to develop their songwriting skills. Would we, I figured, be left with Ronan Keating’s substantial body of work, the classic tunes of Mark Owen or maybe by then an Ade, Jay, Si, Marky or Craigy would have completed a songbook set to rival Paul Simon’s.

Paint it Black …

I decided to amuse myself by desecrating a picture of Jake Beckford with a thick, black marker pen. Over the last few weeks I had begun to build a portfolio of violated pictures of soap and pop stars, actors and musicians, whose computer enhanced faces screamed out to me that they needed alteration of some kind. It started with Dermot McDermott being given the obligatory Hitler moustache and Groucho Marx glasses, then pin-up footballer Harry Coster losing all but one front tooth and having a sweeping Bobby Charlton comb-over hairstyle. More followed: the soap starlet whose name escapes me but plays ‘Catty Carly’ in EastEnders got a set of Devil’s horns and bags under her eyes while all the members of boy band It’s Nothing got the worst acne and set of body piercing this side of Camden Goth night at the Electric Ballroom. I decided that Jake Beckford was too pretty for his own health and was certain that railtrack teeth and a set of facial scars would be an improvement, as would an unfeasible amount of protruding ear and nose hair.

Millie looked over my shoulder to see what I was doing. She initially laughed and then her face broke into a scowl.

‘For God’s sake Dempsey!” she exclaimed, ‘haven’t you got anything else to do?’

‘Oh well let me check with my social secretary!’ I scorned, sarcastically.

The whole day had left me bored to the point of mental numbness and I wasn’t in the mood to be told off by Millie.

‘Relax,’ she said, ‘look, hadn’t you better think about getting ready for tonight?’

I looked at my watch. Six-thirty. I’d been scribbling mindlessly all afternoon, in between bouts of making tea and sandwiches and checking the football scores. We were due to meet Splash at Maryon Park at nine.

‘Yeah, I suppose so,’ I said, wearily getting to my feet, crumpling up Jake’s portrait and aiming a throw into the bin.

After giving up with the television, Millie had spent the best part of the day laying out her entire wardrobe on the bed, almost recreating the famous Richard Gere scene from American Gigolo.   After passing up numerous combinations of skirts, tops, tights, boots, jeans and jackets she finally decided upon one outfit – green 80s-style top with black polka dots, grey, military-style blouson jacket, denim mini-skirt and suede boots, laced with orange and pink ribbons. I hunted for a reasonably clean pair of faded blue jeans and a long-sleeved sweatshirt from my favourite shop, Merc, in Carnaby Street. My Converse All-Stars would, with any luck, keep out the rain, as would my thick, navy blue Mike Nesmith jacket.

Millie examined the A to Z, to figure out how we could get to Maryon Park, which was located across town, south of The Thames, in Woolwich. The best bet seemed to be to catch the overground train from Camden Road to North Woolwich, and then head across the river down the Woolwich Road.

We fought over a look in the full-length mirror one final time, each smoothed down our hair, checked for watches, money, keys and mobiles, and shuffled out of the flat, Millie slamming the door behind her. As we hit the street I sniffed the air.

‘I can sense something’s gonna happen tonight,’ I said.

‘Something good, let’s hope,’ replied Millie, taking my hand.

‘I hope so too. I guess we have to trust Withnail on this one.’

‘What sort of party d’you think it’ll be?’ she asked. ‘Did Splash say anymore, like who’s likely to turn up?’

‘Nope. Not a thing.’

‘D’you reckon there’ll be anyone famous there?’ she said. ‘Like Damon Albarn or Morrissey?’

‘Who can tell,’ I replied. ‘Knowing our luck, though, it’ll probably be Jamie Oliver and a selection of Nolan Sisters!’

Millie laughed as we hurried along the road towards the bus stop. For once she seemed in good spirits, which bode well for the evening. We broke into a canter as we saw the bus approaching our stop, and just managed to flag it down in time. We bought two tickets to Camden Road and settled into our seats, breathing deeply and clasping each other tightly by the hand. This was the best part of the journey – when the feeling of optimism and self-assurance buoyed us. I looked at Millie and smiled.

‘It all starts here,’ I predicted, confidently. ‘It all starts here.’

‘Paul King Stole My Haircut’ – Chapter 7

‘Paul King Stole My Haircut’ – Chapter 7

Whatever happened to the teenage dream?

Two years had passed since we’d signed our first record deal. However, the experience was nothing like the dreams I’d had for so many years. I’d fantasised about playing a gig in front of a packed, enthusiastic crowd, cheering each intro and dancing manically to every song. At the end of the gig, in a scene reminiscent of Moses parting the Red Sea, a sharp-suited A&R man in a pair of dark RayBans would emerge from the middle of the room, a single spotlight following in his wake, holding aloft a sealed scroll that contained every musician’s Holy Grail – a record contract. Naturally, we’d agree terms there and then, with the promise of being put in a recording studio the very next day, to start work on our first number one hit single and multi-award winning debut album.

I’d further imagined signing the contract in a smart, major record company office, surrounded by a gaggle of press photographers. Champagne corks would pop and hands would be shaken all round, with pony-tailed, sharp-suited, overweight record company bosses chewing on fat cigars, rubbing their sweaty hands in glee. ‘My boy’, they’d say, slapping me hard on the back. ‘We’ll get you the best producer, the top session musicians, the most luxurious studio in the countryside, or even in the Bahamas, and we’ll give you one million pounds as an advance against future sales.’

Maybe I’d watched too many Elvis or Cliff Richard films – the ones where they take menial jobs as bus drivers, pineapple pickers or carnival hands, singing part-time for a laugh, and are then discovered by a Mr Big from Big Records. On the other hand, I’d also read of the struggle that groups like The Beatles had endured – years of grotty clubs and seedy pits, travelling to gigs on the bus, facing constant rejection by every major label. But I, just like every adolescent with dreams of pop superstardom, was afflicted by a naive condition that allowed myself to be convinced that I would somehow take the Elvis and Cliff route to fame and fortune.

Marc Bolan once sang ‘Whatever happened to the teenage dream?’ Well Marc, in my case, it disappeared that fateful July day when I put pen to paper on my first deal. Not in a plush, Soho or West End office. Oh no. In a back-street pub called The Spotted Dog just off Tottenham Court Road, surrounded by elderly men sipping warm pints of Guinness while Tab Hunter crooned ‘Young Love’ on the jukebox. There were no cigars, only nauseous, rolled up dog ends being sucked dry by the locals. There were no gold discs on the wall, merely a framed parched notice from 1846 announcing Prime Minister Peel’s abolition of the Corn Laws next to an autographed portrait of Russ Abbott. There was no champagne either, just four pints of watery lager, a large Jack Daniels and Coke and a bottle of Britvic Orange. As we earnestly passed around the biro, scratching our signatures onto the paper, Tab Hunter’s song gracefully faded. The introduction of ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ as the next song on the jukebox couldn’t have been more appropriate.

Radio Days are calling …

Earlier in the day Millie and I had gone to watch the recording of a BBC radio programme at Langham Street studio, just up from Oxford Circus. We had woken early, being dazzled by the piercing sunlight radiating through our flimsy bedroom blinds. Added to the excitement of signing later that evening, we couldn’t get back to sleep. We decided to kill the best part of the day by wandering off to the recording of Radio Four’s ‘That’s News To Me’. During our time at college, particularly in winter when the streets of London were cold and wet and we had little or no money in our pockets, we would drop into the BBC Radio Theatre, for a bit of warmth and a comfy seat for a couple of hours. We weren’t the only ones. The shows were more often than not packed out with old people, popping in to catch up with old friends, have a quick snooze or catch a glimpse of ‘that lovely young Dennis Norden’.

On the day of our contract signing, ‘That’s News To Me’ was recording show eight of its fourteenth series. It was essentially a contemporary news quiz, featuring two teams of personalities, of the calibre usually found on Call My Bluff or Through The Keyhole, engaged in topical banter based on the week’s political or cultural events.

Millie and I had grown accustomed to the routine. We clapped on cue from the director, we laughed heartily in all the right places, and we endured endless, longwinded and mind-numbingly tedious jokes to an increasingly weary audience. We were in awe of the apparent infinite knowledge of certain guests, such as the Daily Telegraph sketch writer or the retired Labour politician. We also yawned at the pre-scripted anecdotes of C-list celebrities from seventies sit-coms who were long since forgotten, even by the old ladies snoring contentedly in their seats behind us.

The quizmaster was Dermot McDermott, a poor man’s Les Dennis. McDermott was the kind of presenter hauled in at the last minute to front a show once Eamon Holmes, Dale Winton and Philip Schofield had declined.

His finest hour had been when he’d been awarded the chair of a new, mid-day television quiz show aimed at the hard of thinking, with lots of coloured lights, pinging bells and farty buzzer sounds to disguise the fact that the quiz was, for all intents and purposes, shit.

‘Ooh isn’t he tall?’ exclaimed one of the old ladies behind us, no doubt pointing at McDermott, who was ambling across stage to his seat.

‘Oh yes. And all his own hair too,’ said her friend.

I looked hard at the dubiously thatched pile of straw, perched precariously on top of McDermott’s rather pointy head. I prodded Millie.

‘Yeah, and at night he keeps it in a box under his bed,’ I whispered.

Millie giggled.

‘Shhhhhhhh!’ she said, trying to control her laughter.

‘Oooh but I don’t like the language he uses though,’ complained old lady #1. ‘He’s so coarse.’

‘Mmmmmmm,’ agreed old lady #2. ‘And very paedophile in his ways.’

I’m sure she meant juvenile, but having read about some of McDermott’s antics in the Sunday press recently, perhaps she was right after all.

‘So ladies and gentlemen,’ announced McDermott. ‘Welcome to another edition of ‘That’s News To Me’, the show which takes a sideways look at the world of politics and everyday, popular events. And today’s teams are – on my left, representing Team A – Harry Lemming. Harry has spent thirty-three years as a Royal reporter on the Daily Mail, and once declared Prince Charles’ trousers to be some of the finest examples of modern architecture in the 20th Century.’

Clap clap clap.

‘Joining him, Den Stoddard, comedy actor, writer and songsmith. Most of you will recognise Den for the character Stupid Stuart in Lenny Henry’s 1980 TV series, ‘Laugh – That’d Make A Change’.’

Clap clap clap

‘On my right – Team B – captained by Sinclair Gordon, witty, handsome and debonair Sun columnist, cheese raconteur and the third husband of soap star Dorothy Guthrie.’

Clap clap clap.

‘Partnered by the colourful, finger-on-the-pulse showbiz reporter on ITV’s ‘What’s Going On?’ entertainment programme, Dom Penn.

Clap clap clap.

‘First question,’ said McDermott, warming to his role, ‘goes to Team A. Now, here’s a piece of popular music from the latest boy band to top the charts. They’re called ‘Aroma’, and their single is ‘I Couldn’t Fly For You Girl’. Listen carefully to the music and then I’ll need the answer to this question: What is the link between their lead singer Dex, the former Labour Parliamentary Undersecretary for the Environment and the current price of fish?’

Millie and I were soon immersed in the show, temporarily putting the excitement of signing out of our minds. We felt safe in the womb-like warmth of the BBC studio and relaxed by the relentless, hypnotic hum of the air-conditioning.

When the recording ended, we traipsed out of the building, following the old ladies blinking into the afternoon sunshine. As they scuttled off to the nearest café for tea and cake, Millie and I made a beeline for the nearest pub. Over two bottles of Becks we each hungrily devoured a bag of Salt and Vinegar crisps, reliving the quiz and looking forward to the evening ahead. Fully refreshed, we headed off to the HMV record shop on Oxford Street, our mission to discover which famous artists our imminent CD would be placed next to in the rack.

After we’d agreed on Millie’s proposition to call the group Detox Cute & The Beauty Junkies, we became conscious of the alphabetical positioning of albums in CD racks. An old folkie friend of ours had once landed a one-single deal, but soon regretted his band being called Jupiter Liar, when he found himself sat squeezed between John, Elton and someone called Jimmy Justice.   We wanted to be near Blondie, but couldn’t agree on a name that didn’t have either Black or Blue in the title. We tried something that might draw us to St. Etienne, but figured that in some quarters we’d be sectioned with Stevens, Shakin’, Stewart, Rod or worst of all Sneddon, David. With Detox Cute, we knew that there were enough cool groups beginning with ‘D’, (Depeche Mode, Doors, Duran Duran), to outweigh the De Burghs, Chris, Dire Straits and Donovans, Jason we sought to avoid.

Alright, alright, alright …

We’d agreed to meet bassist Greg and drummer Lucas in The Spotted Dog at six o’clock, with guitarist Elliott joining us later. By the time Millie and I arrived, Lucas and Greg were already having a beer in one of the darker recesses of the pub. They waved to us from behind their pints to acknowledge our arrival as I fought through the smog of cigarette smog to the bar and ordered a couple of bottles of Grolsch.

‘Not long now,’ said Greg, checking his retro 70’s digital watch. With his side-parting, light-brown hair, wide burgundy flares and brown leather pimp’s jacket from Camden Market, Greg looked every inch like The Six Million Dollar Man.

‘What time do we meet?’ asked Lucas, tapping away with his index fingers on the tabletop, the infuriating drummer’s habit.

‘Seven-thirty,’ said Millie. ‘What time is it now?’

‘Just gone Six,’ replied Lucas. ‘Where’ve you two guys been?’

‘Oh we just popped into to the Beeb up Langham Street to see ‘That’s News To Me’ being recorded.’

‘You lot are weird!’ said Greg, shaking his head in disbelief. ‘I mean, do you get some kind of cheap thrill watching a bunch of crumbly old farts telling badly scripted jokes extremely slowly?’

‘Yeah, well, it’s more interesting than your stupid Motor Racing!’ I retorted. ‘Ooh look, a big shiny penis extension whizzing round and round and round.’

I stifled a mock yawn. Greg was a big Formula One fan. A total petrol-head. We’d seen the posters of Jeremy Clarkson on his wall. He was the sort of person who sat up all night just to watch Damon Hill polishing his helmet and got really excited if Ferrari invented a new type of sparkplug.

‘Philistines!’ said Greg, taking the jibes good-naturedly.

He was used to our teasing and often gave as good as he got if we were ever waxing lyrically over some long-lost Morrissey demo or, in Millie’s case, some art-school disaster now taking the fashion world by storm.

‘Anyway,’ he continued. ‘Where’s Elliott?’

‘Have a guess,’ I said, raising my eyebrows.

‘Working?’ he shrugged.

‘Right,’ I sighed. He’s at the office until seven, but says he’ll meet us here once he’s finished.’

‘Typical,’ said Lucas. ‘He’s always late or has some excuse about missing meetings. Why the hell did the idiot have to go and get a full-time job? Couldn’t he have got part-time or flexible work like the rest of us?’

‘Who knows,’ I said in resignation. ‘It’s a pain in the ass having to work our schedule just to suit Elliott.’

‘Yeah, you’re right,’ said Greg. ‘It just doesn’t make sense, the four of us re-arranging everything around just one band member. Elliott having a proper, nine-to-five job dictates what the rest of us do.’

‘And what’s more,’ added Millie, pointing her finger aggressively at the other two, ‘I’m fed up with keeping it a secret from any potential record companies and managers, and spending half our time making up excuses as to why he can’t ever show up to meetings.’

‘What Elliott doesn’t appreciate,’ I intervened, ‘was that it isn’t just us who are being put out. If we have a photo-shoot, then not only the photographer has to organise their diary around his, but if anyone is booking a location or a studio, that would have to be taken into consideration too. We all have to rehearse when Elliott was free, arrange gigs when it suits Elliott’s social calendar, and cancel everything when Elliott decides to take a holiday.’

It wasn’t entirely fair to be indulging in a free-for-all, slag off Elliott session, especially when the boy wasn’t there to defend himself, but we were just warming up. It was Lucas’ turn to ram home another nail in Elliott’s coffin.

‘Remember when Elliott pissed Millie off over that studio time.’

‘Oh yeah!’ said Greg. ‘What did he say he was doing again?’

‘You remember,’ said Millie. ‘I had this demo session arranged. Two days of free studio down-time, blagged as a result of Bardot Beach finishing their album early. I’d managed to persuade that producer bloke Sam Donnington to stay on with us for a few quid, cash in hand.’

‘Right,’ interrupted Greg. ‘And that cretin Elliott goes and says, ‘Oh I can’t do those two days because my Mum is coming to my flat to clean my curtains, and I’m not sure which day she can make it.’

‘Yeah,’ said Millie, getting quite irate. ‘And then the fucker goes and asks if we can change the studio time to suit him!’

‘Well do you also recall that gig we got asked to do, the one that was being filmed for Channel Four?’ asked Lucas. ‘And he said he couldn’t do it ‘cos his sister’s boyfriend’s next door neighbour was having a barbeque and he had to be there to hand out drinks and trays of food.’

‘Ha!’ I laughed. ‘But the funniest thing was when we saw him again, he said he’d given one of our CDs to that bloke out of Mungo Jerry, who was a mate of this neighbour, who promised he could help us out.’

‘Oh right on!’ said Greg. ‘Cos like Mungo Jerry … they’re number one every week, aren’t they?’

The last of the famous, international playboys …

We laughed at Elliott’s utter naivety. We were all a bit green I suppose, but Elliott really had no idea what it took to make it.   The trouble was he was the most talented musician in the group, a Grade 8 classical guitarist with a degree from the Guildhall School of Music. His parents were both wealthy and encouraging, and provided every means for their son to follow whichever career path took his fancy.

Unfortunately, never having to struggle with the usual rock ‘n’ roll upbringing of playing in grotty local pubs and Camden indie hell-holes meant Elliott failed to appreciate the dedication and application needed to succeed. He had talent in abundance, but he didn’t know how to make the best use of it. What’s more, he didn’t even possess his own equipment.

Mummy and Daddy had bought him thousands of pounds worth of classical instruments for his degree, but he couldn’t quite grasp the necessity of having the appropriate gear for playing in a rock band.   On stage he used a combination of a crappy old Les Paul copy that used to belong to Millie’s Dad and one of Greg’s spare amps. He never seemed to have enough money to buy his own leads or shell out for rehearsal studio fees but was always first to dip his hand in his pocket for a round of beer at the pub.

What with that and his flamboyant social life, where he was constantly eating in West End brasseries, taking in a show or perpetually going on holiday, it made it very difficult for us to function as a working band. The trouble was, Elliott played wonderfully. His guitar runs were fluent and melodic, and never intruded on Millie’s singing, unlike former guitarists did, with their incessant Steve Vai widdling or Angus Young chord thrashing. Elliott’s deft licks and gorgeous arpeggios embellished our songs with a flavour all their own, which enabled us to stand head and shoulders above the normal indie-grungers, moaning and groaning their way around London.

Oh, and the bastard looked the part. Elliott was tall and as thin as a rake, like an underfed Dickensian waif. He had an elegant mane of dirty-blonde hair, and hollowed cheekbones that could have been chiselled out by Michelangelo himself. Elliott had a natural theatricality about him, which combined with a mischievous and roguish manner, made him seem like a modern day Artful Dodger. And this was part of his problem too. Aside from us, his fellow band-mates, who merely tolerated him, everyone loved Elliott.

Being born with a silver plectrum in his mouth meant he never suffered a lack of confidence, always able to rely on Mummy and Daddy whenever the need arose. With a relaxed, easygoing air he charmed everyone he met, never raising his voice, forever full of energy and equipped with a bag of anecdotes to tell of life back home in Shrewsbury, on Mummy and Daddy’s prosperous dairy farm. Elliott showed no interest in following in the family business, like his two older brothers, Gavin and Tim. Encouraged by his retired grandfather Des, he took up the guitar aged four, and via numerous prize-winning competitions and recitals ended up in London at Guildhall. We met him through Lucas’ girlfriend Janie, who was sharing a flat with Elliott and another girl. Elliott was in his final year, and was umming and ahhing as to whether to set off on a trek of the Himalayas or join a rock ‘n’ roll band. The rebel in him chose to stay in London, and when Lucas told him we’d just booted out our useless twat of a guitarist, he came along to the next rehearsal.

As the band struggled over the next few months to land a record deal, Elliott decided to get a job, primarily for the want of something better to do. The rest of us were either in college or living day by day on cash-in-hand work, but Elliott went and got a full-time, 9 to 5, office job, working as a cashier’s clerk for an insurance company based in Liverpool Street. Elliott’s social life rapidly took off, and he was always found propping up the bar of some trendy wine establishment in Covent Garden with his City boy mates, flashing their gold cards everywhere. Not only that, but our band finances suffered. All of a sudden we couldn’t afford to take the cheaper daytime rehearsal rooms, and that’s when Elliott began dictating our schedule, to fit around his own social diary. In his own mind, he was thoroughly enjoying himself, living the life of a playboy musician in a band going places with the security of an office salary and Mummy and Daddy’s fortune acting as a safety net. By the time we got offered the first deal it was too late to do anything about it. Elliott was part of the band whether we liked it or not.