Monday, March 30, 2009

“Heavens above, this is Toytown…”

History, they say, is written by the winners, and so in the big book of British hit makers, you’re unlikely to find the name of As Is, and if you do, it’ll probably be the other one. Perhaps, if you delve far enough, you’ll find a reference to their NME review, written by one-time fanzine scribbler Steve Lamacq, or perhaps a series of unsurprisingly gushing features penned by Steve Constable in The Evening Star. For a while there back in the early nineties the As Is shadow loomed large over my life in that for a while I’d been one of the band’s guitar players and had laid my hat in a small alcove in the singer’s kitchen-diner, just beside the spare Marshall practice amp and near enough the foldaway dining table to kick away the legs if I stretched far enough in the middle of the night, but by now that is all long ago and far away. However you can’t get nostalgic about something too peremptorily and so when a safe twenty years had passed since the previous line up of the band had split, their original fracturing being the reason I’d ended up there in the first place, it seemed as good a time as any to call in a couple of favours and see if the we could get the old gang back together, just to double check. This wasn’t exactly the way I initially phrased it – I think the actual wording of the text message ran something along the lines of “Can you and those other three idiots get the band back together in time for my birthday?”, which injudicious phrasing provoked an almost immediate and positive response. All I had to do was find a venue, set a date, and hope everyone remembered what order the chords went in. There were a few other minor details to sort out – we wondered about putting on a support band of a similar vintage but my first chosen victims were busily engaged in the business of working for a living on the covers circuit (this being a service somewhat akin to singlehandedly being the flotation device keeping the Ipswich music scene from drowning in a sea of karaoke if you believe the mail out, this view and their newsletter both being something I subscribe to, with varying degrees of credulity) and the accepted view was that the Mk.III line up of As Is (of which I was part) would never be able to get it together due to the twin demands on the rhythm section of (variously) supplying the bottom end for a reformed skate punk pioneers The Stupids (several bonus points for keeping the dream alive there) and being both a human rights defence lawyer and father of two, which apparently leaves little room for manoeuvre when it comes to fitting in rehearsals. Them boys were going to have to go it alone.
The venue itself was a godsend. The Blue Room at McGinty’s in Ipswich is set up with its own PA, sound engineer, downstairs lounge with audio and visuals piped in from upstairs and a twin CD deck for ‘twixt-set entertainment purposes, a selection of bars and (most importantly) happy and amenable owners who were only too willing to rent out the whole lot at a very reasonable rate, set out a table with ink stamp, cash float and counter-clicker, and then retire gracefully until there was a perceived need for a sweet-smelling orange, white and green after show cocktail which may well have added valuable minutes to the journey time home – I find that zig-zagging all the way ensures maximum ground coverage on a journey like that. They also gave us our own barman. It's the little touches which mean so much.
The band had convened a couple of weekends earlier for a two day session of rehearsals and so were feeling pretty good about themselves – guitarists James and Paul (one tinkering, one blazing) having borrowed amplifiers, restrung ancient Ibanez guitars and resisted the temptation to set their compression pedals to Eighties levels, drummer Reado having bought a china crash cymbal for the occasion and then the rest of the kit to go with it, and still-gigging bass player Kilbey, remarkably not yet dead behind the eyes despite decades of cover-band hell, who had rounded up the eldest of his children (who missed the whole As Is experience first time round due to the unfortunate and unavoidable circumstance of not yet having been conceived – literally and figuratively) and a bunch of his mates. Who else would turn up, we didn’t know. Perhaps a legion of ex-supporters, nostalgic for the days of the power pop hook and the big chorus; perhaps the band’s ex-manager, still smarting over that unfortunate incident involving the guitar player, perhaps no-one at all? As it turned out, we had a respectable assembly – a few interested onlookers who didn’t know the group from a hole in the wall but who had sussed that there was a band on upstairs, an ex-roadie and housemate from the flat downstairs at James’s, the ex-manager and, beautifully, the drummer from ‘my’ line up, who ghosted in during the second set and nodded approvingly throughout - and why not? After all - we were fans first. A few no-shows, and few promises not fulfilled, a few folks who desperately wanted to be there but couldn’t (and one who’d got tickets for Metallica at the O2 before he heard about it) but then after twenty years I guess some people have had time to make other arrangements, or forget them. And the band? The band were magnificent! Slightly thicker around the middles and more blurred at the edges, youthful mops of hair cropped into close buzz cuts or pulled back into a greying ponytail (with the exception of Kilbey on bass, who obviously has a picture of himself locked securely in an attic somewhere – as guitarist PT remarked, he is one of the few people whose children look older than he does) but still able to pull off a tight, fizzing two set show with nary a dropped lyric or chord (and, satisfyingly, no dropped keys either). The years suited the songs – what were once hectoring lectures now became sober reflections, the same songs, but drawn through the filter of time and re-presented as rueful asides.
Pop history is, indeed, written by the winners but that, of course, depends on your definition of what it means to win. It turns out that As Is never lost the game because they never accepted that they were playing in the first place. To coin a phrase, they did it their way. Pop history may be written by the winners, but somewhere, sometime, wherever you go, there’ll be someone there who never gave up, there’s someone there who will always be around.

1 comment:

Keith Farnish said...

That was lovely. Ta.