Happy New Year, boys and girls.

It’s been a while since I waxed lyrical about Pop Music – Blog veterans may get misty eyed when I mention my previous venture - “Big Plans For Everybody”. But most of you will shrug and quite right too. The purpose of this little exercise is to empty my tiny mind of a whole bunch of these random thoughts that are getting in the way of the Important Stuff, whatever that is. No downloadables this time around, I’m afraid – I had to take BPFE down three times for the cardinal sin of posting out of print Kinky Machine ‘b’ sides and Levitation live shows. That was really boring and fiddly. Instead, what you get is pure, unvarnished, erm…stuff. Stuff about Very Big And Famous Bands and stuff about titchy little bands. But it’ll be entertaining stuff(I hope). The plan is to do at least one (sizeable) post a week and maybe even a quickie or two on the way. The comments box is open – please use it. I am, of course, cheating right from the word go and the first few posts are straight reprints from BPFE. They’ll be a brand new post in a day or two.

I love Pop Music. Here are my love letters.

Taylor Swift broke my heart: A True Story

All on drugs. Every one.
I used to be a Music Teacher. Now then – let me stop you there. Before you start the “Endless holidays, short hours, not a proper job” gubbins, I’ll just put you straight. Imagine this deliciously nightmarish scenario: You are alone in a room with 26, 11 year old children. All of them are standing behind cheap, Yamaha keyboards. Well maybe not all…three or four have got electric guitars plugged into unfeasibly large amplifiers. You have the task of teaching them all, at once, how to play a 12 bar Blues.  You cannot show fear. That is their food. Instead you gavotte around the classroom, forcing prepubescent fingers into the shape of a C chord whilst counting out loud “1..2..3..4” in an attempt to give the piece some sense of pulse. Whilst you do this, you are breaking up fights, praising the ones that are getting it and encouraging the ones who will, quite frankly, never be able to play the Blues if John Lee Hooker came back from the dead and gave them a series of one-to-one lessons. Possibly with a boxed set of instructional DVDs thrown in. And the noise. It makes Ornette Coleman sound like Boyzone. 26 slightly wrong versions of the chords C, F and G played slightly out of time. But loudly. Always loudly. 50 minutes later, mercifully it ends and the instruments are abandoned and off they scurry to terrify another poor teacher. Still think the jobs a doss…?
Now I know what Taylor Swift looks like!
But there were surprises. A lot of my job was the technical stuff. My colleagues were all properly trained classical musicians and (through no fault of their own) hadn’t much of a clue about how music got from the instrument onto a disc. That was left to me. This meant I got to listen to hours of student’s performances, ranging from the “pretty darned good” to the “do you even know what that thing you are pounding with your fist is called?” I recorded nervous, angsty compositions, thousands of covers of “Wonderwall”, drum rudiments, bass solos, lush piano ballads and an a Capella version of “Wild Thing”. Teacher would wheel ‘em in – I’d mic ‘em up, be encouraging and off we’d go. Something (often not, strictly speaking, Music) would be recorded. Here comes the point. Teacher drops off a 14 year old girl to record a performance. This meant she could pick any appropriate material for her range or instrument. “So, what are we recording?” says I, friendly but with just a hint of authority (I wish…) “Taylor Swift”. Taylor Swift. What’s a Taylor Swift? It sounds like a bird found only on the Isle of Man. “Oh, Taylor Swift”, says I, already massively out of my depth. “And what’s the song?” “Never Grow Up…and can you play the Guitar for me please?” I silently prayed that this Taylor Swift wasn’t someone who’d played for Frank Zappa for years that I’d forgotten about and mumbled something about chord charts. She had the song on her phone. Of course she did. At the time, every teenage girl came pre-packaged with a pink Nokia, bristling with low res, Pirate Bay supplied, Avril Lavigne knockoff tunes. So I settled back to listen to a bad version of song I’d hate through a speaker smaller than a penny. Sigh. Keep smiling…lunch next period and it’s Rogan Josh Lasagne today. No, really. They did that at my school. Multi-cultural much? She pressed the tiny button and some rather nicely played acoustic guitar forced its way out of the Poundland speaker. Then the vocal…how old is this girl? “Taylor Swift wrote this didn’t she?” The student nodded. By now, she knew I was bluffing, I’m sure. But something really struck me about the lyric. Even in the least salubrious circumstances, I was finding this quite moving, For you non-Swifties (cough), the song is about wishing that your child would stay three years old forever and never have to deal with all the trials and tribulations of modern life. As a father of two children (7 and 9 years old at the time), this sounded like perfection. Can you imagine – days full of simple wonder, everything new, every object a toy, every person a playmate? I got three quarters of the way through the song. “I’ll have to get a Guitar from the storeroom”. And when I got to the storeroom, I had a little cry.
A lot of my response was due to the fact that it was such a surprise to me. I wasn’t expecting what I got by a country mile. Diligently, I grabbed the schools’ only working Guitar, got the chords via Ultimate Guitar.com and off we went. She did a bang up job. While I artlessly plunked away, she sang in a light, breathy alto voice, with just the right amount of vibrato. Not showy. Not X Factor. Just right. She left a few years ago. I hope she’s still singing. She had a gift. And good taste.
We forget how powerful Music is. No matter what you think you are and how you think you should react, Music will always find the truth in you. You can claim you hate U2, but when you hear the opening notes of “I Will Follow”, you’re strumming your belt before you can stop yourself. I could leave my chair and pull out recordings by Neu! Miles Davis, The Clash and the MC5. These are recordings that I love…but none of them has ever made me cry. It took Taylor Swift to do that.

The First Rehearsal

This is the first of an occasional series in which I'll be laying out a step by step guide to playing in a pop group - the laughter, the tears, the bad times (lots of 'em), the good times (seldom) that an aspiring musician may encounter on the rocky road to megastardom - or more realistically, that much sought after, third on the bill support to 'Septic Death' on a Tuesday night at the Flapper & Firkin

"That's Roy Wood's old amp, mate"
My 'career' in the local band scene began in 1986, when one of my colleagues, a normally sensible chap called Darrall, asked me to try out for his newly formed, R.E.M. style janglepop combo. I have to point out that at this time, my Bass playing prowess stretched as far as two Thin Lizzy riffs and the intro to 'Satisfaction', but he was desperate - really desperate. It did involve a trip to the pub however so I reluctantly agreed. It was at the pub that I first met Gary, the drummer. He took one look at my tragic Motley Crue wannabee outfit and decided to get blind drunk. I later found this was not an unusual occurrence.

We finally reached the rehearsal room, (Gary had taken the precaution of walking twenty metres behind us so as not to be mistaken for an acquaintance of mine). Down about a million steps, we arrived at a shabbily padded door. As we pushed it open, the sound of six of the crappiest bands in the West Midlands assailed our ears. Gingerly, Darrall asked which of the rooms was ours and without lifting his head from a ten-year-old copy of 'Razzle', the Black Sabbath roadie look-alike pointed to the corridor. As our eyes got accustomed to the gloom, we could vaguely make out a prehistoric drumkit and a few amps. This was not the kind of place Celine Dion would rehearse in.

"Don't forget to use the ashtrays..."
About half of our two-hour session involved setting up the gear.  Gary clattered around the kit like an epileptic shed builder, whilst Darrall struggled with what was once a Marshall amp but was now little more than an electric rabbit hutch. The sound that dribbled out of its ruined speaker was like six angry wasps trapped in a galvanised bucket. My amp was about sixty years old with perished Bakelite knobs and woodworm. After much farting and spluttering, a sound resembling a forty-foot bungee rope being twanged by an arthritic pixie emerged. We pronounced ourselves ready to rock.
Darrall showed me his first tune--a pretty neat little four-chord rocker (bearing in mind this was one more than I was used to), and off we lurched. Rock & Roll history was not made. The vocal P.A. (possibly last used by the bingo caller to Henry VIII) made Darrall sound like a mildly peeved Dalek and this along with the slightly less than virtuoso playing made for what my father so rightly describes as "a bloody row". About halfway through our last "song", we were interrupted by the band vacating the room next to ours. Their looks of barely concealed mirth will haunt me forever - in fact, their drummer laughed so hard at our dismal strummage that he dropped his cymbals, which hit the threadbare carpeted floor with a resounding CRASH! On reflection however, that was probably the most musical sound to come out of that room all day

The First Gig

"Thanks for the loan of the amp, mate"

You've joined a band. You've rehearsed a few times. You know all the chords to 'September Gurls' but not necessarily the order in which they're played. Your girlfriend thinks you're brilliant (but she'll learn). You think you're ready to gig. This is a bad idea. No, it's A VERY BAD IDEA. The scenario normally runs like this - one member of the band has a mate who is in another band. They're playing in some gruesome nightmare of a pub next week and they're stuck for a support band. (Or more to the point they're stuck for a drumkit), and they thought it would be a nice gesture if they gave you the opening slot. This is, of course, complete and utter nonsense because they know that, as crappy as they are, following you would be a bit like The Who following Daphne and Celeste. Anyway, you accept and the night of the gig rolls around. The following things will occur:

All your mates will turn up. Not to cheer you on in your moment of triumph but to skulk around by the bar and snigger at you. At no time during your set will they clap or cheer (unless of course, you fall over or snap a string and then the roars will be deafening). They will not dance.
Someone will take photographs. Not of that exquisite moment where you leaped in the air whilst pulling of the most difficult Jazz chord in the world, but of that slightly less than exquisite moment when you were picking your P.V.C. trousers from out of the crack of your butt.

That really dramatic pause in that aching ballad three quarters of the way through the set will be somewhat spoiled by the drummer's crash cymbal falling off its stand and rolling down the stairs.

You have one four note solo. You will screw it up. Your mates will cheer at this point.

Your electronic tuning device will not work, resulting in you trying to tune by ear whilst the drummer of the headline band re-enacts great tank battles of the twentieth century on your band's drumkit, which of course, he has now broken.

All your carefully rehearsed, pithily witty, Oscar Wilde-esque stage banter will be forgotten and the best you will be able to manage is a mumbled "Cheers" in between every other song.

Whilst you are singing a heart rending song of undying love dedicated to your girlfriend, she will be in the loo with her mates, laughing at your sexual inadequacies.

In many ways, playing your first gig is rather similar to your first sexual encounter - nervous, amateurish fumbling followed by embarrassment and apologies with a lingering feeling of disappointment combined with almost existential feelings of detachment, failure and futility. But at least after a shag you don't have to carry a bass amp down three flights of stairs…

In The Studio

When I first entered the Beer soaked arena of sadness we laughingly call ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’, to record anything that didn’t sound like it was produced either underwater or accompanied by the sound of frying bacon, one had to drag oneself into a recording studio. What an eye opener that was.  If you think it's all technicians in white coats scurrying around with clipboards, George Martin and Phil Spector arguing over string arrangements, recording spaces larger than the Isle Of Man. etc, I'm afraid you are sorely mistaken. For a band like mine with a budget slightly smaller than a decent round of drinks, the reality is all too different. Imagine your living room after the best party you've ever had. Now, imagine it with 25 miles of cheap cable on the floor, a clapped out drumkit in the corner and brown carpet on the walls. Now throw in approximately 10 000 cigarette butts distributed at random on every surface. And for that distinctive budget studio ambience - a smell of urine which is surpassed only by the "St Loosebladders Rest Home for the Old and Incontinent'. Voila! Welcome to the wonderful world of recording! This is where you intend to record a "Sgt Peppers" for the new millenium. Or possibly not.

"Yeah, I've a got a compressor,,,"

Along with these incredibly creative surroundings comes that most rare of beasts -the engineer. He will greet you as you arrive at about 10 o'clock in the morning, with the ninth spliff of the day clamped between his teeth, Your confidence is further dashed by the way he cannot seem to make any of the vast array of outdated equipment work. "A manual is for wimps- I go by feel and experience!" is the cry. This can be translated to 'It’s very big, full of long words, with no pictures of naked women in it. My attention span is two seconds shorter than that of a goldfish and anyway I tore up to use as rolling papers when the late night garage had closed." After about four hours of setting the drums up, drinking awful studio tea, reading back issues of 'Modern Studio’ magazine and trying to stop the engineer playing Drum & Bass tapes at ear shredding volume, you are ready to begin recording your masterwork. You've rehearsed your tune to perfection - well you listened to a rehearsal tape recorded on your kid sisters 'Teletubbies Tape Recorder' in the van, on the way in, so you're ready to make recording history. Sadly, within moments, your dreams of Grammy awards are dashed when a few home truths become glaringly obvious.

1. That twin guitar line you spent ages working out is so out of key that even a diehard Sonic Youth fan would leave the room screaming.

2. Your drummer really is as bad as you thought he was.

3. Your vocalist couldn't find the right key with both hands, a flashlight and a pack of military trained, pitch seeking dogs.

4. The only bassline your bassist can play competently is 'Black Night`. To your horror, you find he has managed to incorporate this into every song.

5. Your keyboard player’s slightly-less-than-state-of-the-art-equipment makes every song you record sound like a Kajagoogoo B side.

6. Your harmony vocals are neither harmonious nor, strictly speaking, actually vocals.

But you persevere. At the end of the most gruelling and soul destroying day of your life, the engineer will play your masterpiece back at you at about 1000 decibels. Surprisingly, it sounds brilliant! When you take it home and play it, on your slightly more humble Hi-fi, however, it sounds like what it really is - a dismal, uninspired piece of two chord, strummage, woefully played and incompetently recorded. If you sent it to a record company, somebody would be sent to your house to break your guitar. And you've spent nearly a month’s wages to find that out.
As long as bands exist, people will want to record their music. In the future, what I suggest is that if you feel the need to do this - DON'T! Take all the money you intend to spend on studio time and spend it on useful stuff like ice-cream. If people want to know what you sound like, then you just describe your band to them. And lie like a rug.

On The Road

Musicians are all masochists. This is the only reason I can think of why they would contemplate, even for a second, the notion of going “On The Road". Apparently, it isn’t enough to play in front of nobody in a pub down the road - oh no - your average local band wants to play in front of nobody a long way from home too

For whatever twisted reason, a local blues band have managed to play a gig in some woodworm festooned shack in a minuscule provincial ghetto in the middle of nowhere. This is perceived as BIG NEWS by all the other sad local outfits and they begin to pump the aforesaid three chord bluesmurderers for information. Being stout fellows all, they lie on a massive scale and elevate their tragic half hour of slaughtering Elmore James tunes into an event akin to Hendrix at Monterey. They also inflate the fee they receive. This has a strange effect on all those within earshot... Within minutes, you make a grovelling and undignified phone call to the pub, where you claim your nasty little fourth rate beat combo is outselling Madonna, Oasis and Aqua in your home town. Grudgingly, the landlord books you for the highly sought after fourth on the bill slot, on a Tuesday night, for a tiny fee. You are pathetically grateful. Then, like a slap in the face, reality appears. The only transport the band has is the keyboard players’ 1976 Mini and this has a Guinness label for a tax disc at the moment. This is clearly unsuitable for carrying an entire bands gear; even such a tragically poorly equipped one as yours. The only van you can afford is a clapped out Transit from ‘JustLegal CheapoVans’. Someone’s brother is conned into driving so now you’re ready to rock.

"It gets loads of passing trade..."
The big night is here. After just a few near death experiences you make it to the venue, which bears a striking similarity to a portaloo with a carpark. In time honoured tradition, you play without a soundcheck to three people, one of whom is clearly mad, while the other two are too busy beating each other up to even acknowledge the fact that there is a band in the room. After twenty-five lengthy and humiliating minutes, the plug is mercifully pulled and your first out of town gig is over.

One of the band sheepishly asks the landlord for the mythical fee. He mumbles something derogatory and hands you £25 in damp fivers. Clutching this like the Holy Grail, you run back to your comrades.

Of course, you get lost and the van breaks down. You limp to a motorway service station (nearly always Newport Pagnall) and feast on a plate of lukewarm beans and chips. By a miracle you repair the van and at seven in the morning, with just enough time for a shower and a quick nervous breakdown before work, you arrive home. A swift calculation later and taking into consideration the cost of the van, a pint of Fosters each, your service station "banquet", the road map of Leeds you had to buy to determine where the bloody hell you were, twenty five Twix’s, thirty packets of Monster Munch and the Bass players Taxi fare home (well he was crying a lot, and he had turned a funny shade of blue), you come to the grim realisation that this sad and sorry night has cost the band about £200.

Welcome to Showbiz.

The First Record

There is nothing I can say about this picture
that would make it less ridiculous

Certain things in life are difficult. Explaining the rules of Cricket to a Frenchman, for example, or trying to look suave and impressive whilst eating Spaghetti. But these things pale into insignificance against The Most Difficult Thing in The World — trying to explain to your parents the function of the Bass Guitar.

For years I’d secretly yearned to be a Rockstar Guitarist like most of my generation, but it all seemed so difficult. Those tricky chords, those superfast lead guitar  licks (not to mention the pouting and the high maintenance trousers) all seemed far too much like hard work All the Keyboard players of the era (with the possible exception of Rick Wakeman) looked like Geography teachers and maintaining a sexy hairdo whilst flailing away at a Drumkit seemed impossible. Singing seemed promising - until I realised l had neither the voice nor the torso to really carry off a line like, "I‘m gonna roll ya all night long baybee baybee yeah". This left but one option - the humble Bass Guitar. Perfect! No chords, no solos (until delusions of grandeur set in), four big, fat, friendly strings and most importantly, Lemmy played one.

"Brilliant! I love Napalm Death!"
After many months of hard bargaining and undignified pleading, my parents bought me a second hand Rickenbacker copy Bass for Christmas. I tried to play it. I couldn’t. The Bass was fabulous, it was me who was crappy, I'd pose with it in front of the mirror in the bathroom but it was seldom played, so it came as quite a shock when l found myself in a local indie band. It came as a bigger shock when a record company signed us up. A record deal! We quickly shifted from local obscurity to national obscurity. We made a record! It was quite good! It sold about nine copies! At last l had something to show my parents - a real record as opposed to the home made cassettes I made and circulated, hoping in vain that one would land in Richard Bransons lap - possibly at a Polo game. I dreamed of the day I would play it to them -all those years of putting up with tuneless thumps and aimless plods would fade away and I would be showered in glowing praise. And one day that dream became real and turned into a nightmare...

I could barely speak as I lowered the crackly test pressing of our album onto the record deck of my parents music centre, having first removed the copy of ‘James Lasts 40 Hammond Greats’ which seemed to live there. The needle hit the groove. My parents assumed serious listening positions on the edges of their chairs, and I sat back to await the plaudits. What I wanted was a comment like "Good Lord! The groove riding genius of Bootsy Collins combined with the power and precision of Chris Squire, the rhythmic audacity and master musicianship of Jaco Pastorius and the melodic invention and pure daring of mid-to-late-sixties McCartney!" What l got was, "Is that you'?" after each instrument began playing in the first song. Wearily, I had to explain to my parents that I was not the drummer, guitarist or singer in the band in a tone normally used by Primary School teachers to backward five year olds; I was in fact, making that low sort of ploddy, thumpy sort of noise that you could barely hear. 

My father looked puzzled as he struggled with the concept of playing an instrument no-one notices until it stops or goes wrong. My mother however was able to summon up a comment that almost killed all my musical aspirations stone dead. With a withering, pitying smile she fixed me with a kind of "I’m sorry; your pet puppy has just been run over” look and said, "I bet that’s much harder to play than it actually sounds?