Thursday, December 20, 2012

"It's all quiet, especially on the trains".

Through a series of circumstance long and complicated, I found myself in the studios of BBC Radio Suffolk at half five this morning, preparing to deputise live on air for regular Breakfast Show traffic and travel guru Simon “If it’s safe and legal to do so” Talbot under his beneficient tutelage and softly gaze. On the surface, this seemed like an easy gig – all I had to do was review the front pages of the daily papers, contribute a couple of quirky sideways sound bites concerning at the news, and then every fifteen minutes pop into the studio and read out some updates on the state of the roads, whilst remembering not to say ‘fuck’ on air (the sanctity of the control room is a different matter – it was like a Yorkshire navvies’ convention in there at times).
That my super-ego was taking it seriously can be inferred from the classic pre-exam anxiety dream from which I woke at three in the morning, the developing scenario having progressed to the point where I had imagined that Breakfast Show host Terry Baxter had not turned up and that Simon had stepped in and was presenting the show in the face of an ever more serious spiral of technical mishaps until, Nero-like, he pulled out a violin and started playing a mournful air amidst the collapsing studio soundproofing, giving the show the aspect of the dinner party scene at the end of Carry On Up The Khyber. It wasn’t until I remembered that Si can’t actually play the violin that I was stirred from my slumber. I know, and you’d think being in the studio naked apart from a dressing gown would have triggered a reaction first, wouldn’t you?
Thanks to astute time management, gentle praise and the generous dispensation of tips and tricks from The I-Spy Presenters’ Book of Making It Look Easy by the regulars I managed to at least give the impression of someone who knew what they were doing, even though I didn’t get to broadcast my pre-prepared introductory shtick regarding the late substitution (“Simon can’t be here as he is currently in lockdown at a Mayan Apocalypse-proof bunker in the West Midlands, which has been stocked almost entirely with Bovril and Fray Bentos steak and kidney pies”) and I also didn’t get to throw in his trademark “You know me, Terry – I love a survey” in tribute to my mentor. I remarked on this slight regret as I repeatedly pressed F5 on the keyboard controlling the travel computer monitor, trying for a last update on the burgeoning crisis on the Chelmsford by-pass before close of play. “You should get your own catchphrase” he said, mentally trying one on for size. “Had you considered finishing your reports with ‘…and it’s all quiet on the trains…TADAAAH!’?” I admitted that I hadn’t, but would certainly consider it in case of any future engagements.
“Is he being paid for sitting around out there?” queried Terry at one point. I relayed this to a reflective Simon. “My role, you see…” he began “…is very much like that of a fire fighter. There may well be long periods of inactivity, but when the call comes I have to leap instantly into action, keeping pace with the intensity of developments whilst at all times maintaining an untroubled exterior, inspiring confidence in others and providing a beacon of calm amidst the brouhaha. This is how I regard my role, be it ever so humble. That…” he concluded “…or as being like one of the Thunderbird pilots”.     

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

"...and then Shane went away and wrote about someone who'd annoyed him that day..."

Our Glorious Leader was interviewed on the radio last week. I touched on the subject of our recording experience at the BBC a couple of blogs ago and I was looking forward to the broadcast as, along with the Radio Suffolk drive time listenership, this was when I’d be able to listen to our performance for the first time, the band having eschewed such bourgeois concepts as playbacks and monitors in the studio in favour of the wholesome and robust “Well, that one felt okay” approach so beloved of recording engineers the network over - especially ones who’ve already put in a full shift that day and are required to hang about for an extra few hours in order to preserve these sorts of occasions for posterity due to the unique way in which the BBC is funded. Unfettered from the need to defer to the rabbit-mouthed talk show interventionist who usually accompanies him on such occasions (*waves*) James was free to converse in a leisurely fashion with host Stephen ‘Foz’ Foster not only about Songs from The Blue House, but on matters such as the perils of gig promoting, the opportunities that technology affords the modern music archivist (an aside concerning The Who and Little Richard during a diversion regarding the processed nature of modern recordings was particularly apposite) and how much it cost him to pay off Carly Simon over that little matter of the single.   
Obviously all of these recordings remain the property of the BBC, although I’m sure we’re meant to have signed some sort of form in case they want to release them as part of a boxed set or something in future. Not everyone would ‘fess up with such a disclaimer - avuncular recording guru Dave ‘Butch’ Butcher (to whom OGL rightly pays fulsome tribute in the interview itself) noted at the time of our original visit that he only realised that he’d just recorded one band’s next album when he counted back the number of songs they’d crammed into the session and after they insisted on taking a CD copy away with them at its conclusion.
So, here are four acoustic session songs by SftBH and an interview of about a half hour’s duration as originally broadcast, during which Foz also plays our version of Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain;
You can, of course, purchase your very own copy of the single here;

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

My Crazy Film Star Life.

I once played a wedding reception hosted on a set which had featured in a Harry Potter film. The candelabra made us feel like we were in an Echo and The Bunnymen video - all we were missing were the greatcoats. At one point, at the guests' request, we played Smoke On The Water. I had to whisper the lyrics to The Singer while The Bass Player simultaneously relayed the chords to me (let's face it, no-one really knows anything other than the intro riff in real life). After the gig we stole some lights from the set which we used for some time afterward for our regular pub gigs.
I'm just saying.  

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Tub Thumping

And so once more to the darkling halls of the British Broadcasting Corporation, wherein Songs from The Blue House are to record a number of songs in our radio-friendly light East Angliacana style for broadcast on Radio Suffolk’s drive time programme. It is a credit to the organisation that in these straitened times they continue to invest as much time and resource in promulgating new and original music as they do, and it is probably more a reflection on us and our arbitrary approach to the unique way in which they are funded that on this occasion we have chosen to record a version of Judas Priest’s Breaking the Law.

Thematically, the song fits in with our repertoire of slightly peeved protest material (A Land of Make Believe and My Boy from the album IV on this occasion) and I for one have certainly always wondered if the signature intro riff wouldn’t have sounded better on flute and octave mandola in the first place. There are many reasons to look fondly on Judas Priest and Breaking the Law. For a start, the hilarious video is victim of one of the worst storyboards ever committed to paper (step forward, Julien Temple) secondly, singer Rob Halford persuaded an entire generation of NWOBHMers that spandex, leather, studs and a jaunty bikers’ cap were an acceptable look for regular casual wear, which is a hell of a trick in anyone’s book. Let us not forget also that in an age of such nom-de-guerres as Steve Zodiac, Biff Byford and Thunderstick the band sported a drummer called Les Binks. Look, when they got booked for Live Aid they decided to play a Fleetwood Mac cover. You didn’t get that with Kenny Loggins.
In a spooky high Priestesque quasi-coincidence we, also, have been involved in a back-masking controversy as the last time we came in to do a radio session we performed a still-nascent version of My Boy to which the shadowy figures whom affable studio engineer Dave Butcher refers to only as “the technical guys” applied a technique which reversed the word ‘pissing’ so as to make it appear unintelligible, or at least not quite as obvious as the one Chumbawumba got away with so blatantly and for so long. In response we suggest that on this occasion Our Glorious Leader James simply sing it backwards to begin with.

We try the song a couple of times and on the third run through everyone mostly gets their parts right, including a lovely sinuous bass run by Gibbon during the bridge part of the song which may help distract the good commuting folk of Ipswich from my "You don't know what it's like!" vocal interjection. We’re all relatively happy and lay down our various instruments. Butch appears through the snugly fitting studio (or, more accurately, fuse box and switch room) door. “It’s always a pleasure” he begins, before adding with perfect comic timing “…when you leave”.          

Songs from The Blue House's current album is available from 

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

"Come on baby, let's kiss this thing goodbye..."

Through the prismatic filter of social networking I see that Our Glorious Leader has found a copy of the As Is Danish tour programme from 1989. “A tour programme!?” I hear you exclaim. Well, yes. We didn’t have the time (or money) to organise any t-shirts to claw in some badly-needed merch cash on the road, all the extant cassettes featured the previous line up, and we thought that if nothing else it might be a nice souvenir of the trip – mine, I believe, is still in a box of yellowing press clippings at my parents’ house. Anyone confused by the terms ‘cassettes’ and ‘press clippings’ had probably best step away from the blog now, as not a lot else of this will make sense.
The jaunt was extraordinarily enjoyable – there are some first hand recollections on James’s personal site here -  - not least because I was sleeping on his kitchen floor at the time and it was nice to get out and about a bit, even if I did end up sharing a dormitory with the rest of the band while he got the table tennis room to himself – the one with the double bass in it. I remember that we all shushed each other and listened to him writing a song called ‘Love Me’ through the wall. Bass player Ross wrote ‘Hey Therese’ and I had something else that we, ahem, put down onto side one of the second cassette from ‘Rolled Gold’, since it was the only recording medium we had to hand. Having sellotaped over the space where the recording tab would have been we plugged two microphones into a music centre deck and then simply pointed one at the guitar and one at the singer. It came out with lovely room reverb, and not too bad a stereo mix, as I recall. For years afterwards I would intersperse listening to the end of ‘Gimme Shelter’ with the start of ‘Where Two Seas Meet’, another of Ross’s on the road compositions.

The tour programme itself was a nifty little A5 booklet wherein James put together a guide to the towns we’d be playing (including a pre-tour warm up in Grimsby, reasoning that this was as close to Denmark as we could get without buying ferry tickets), I really can’t remember what I wrote, Ross did a great art-school essay about the Jim Morrison poster on his wall and Malcolm, as the drummer, contributed a wordsearch puzzle. There may also have been cartoons and we compiled the thing on a clunky old computer-cum-word processor in the Venue for Ipswich Campaign* office on the corner of Crown and High Street just in time to run some copies off before we left to catch the boat.
If things had turned out differently this’d be a time for alerting Christie’s, scouring eBay and possibly even occasioning a remastered boxed set just so we could include the entire live show from Aalborg, from which James once compiled a quite lengthy tape comprised entirely of my betwixt-song introductions. Even allowing for the generally excellent standard of English-speaking over there this was probably a bit much to be getting on with. As it is I shall probably take a look when I go over at the weekend and with the sagacity that age and experience brings we’ll chuckle to each other “Well, I wouldn’t have used that font…”

*We never did get that venue, by the way.



Tuesday, October 30, 2012

"It'll sound different when there's some people in..."

We did the Gods Kitchen gig on Sunday in a reasonably hitchless fashion – nobody fell off the stage, I fulfilled a hitherto unrealised ambition by coming on to intro music (The Battle by Fairport Convention, in case you were wondering), we switched the mirror ball on at an appropriate juncture during the set, which created a nice atmosphere, and I forgot very few of the lyrics during the course of the show – including even the one we’d not played since 1992 (the date of the rehearsal was on the cassette we re-learned it from) and the brand new one we hadn’t previously played at all. Best, I think, was the way a cinematograph whirred away in my head as we worked our way through the big list of songs, the characters from them drifting wraith-like across my mind, gesturing imaginary salutations cheerily toward the stage in acknowledgement of their elevation to my own personal iconography. More importantly, we played most of the right notes, in mostly the right order. 
Through the kind attentions of I was able to collect a reference CD of the gig shortly after we’d completed it. I resisted the temptation to listen to it straight away and am subsequently enjoying it even as I write these words, the soft-lit memory of the performance being gently corrected in favour of the actualité. For instance, live on stage, guest for one number James Partridge screamed a Beatlesque "Turn me on!" into the microphone as he launched into a blazing guitar solo. Turns out he was shouting "Turn me up!" at the sound man. If I were to venture an observation, it would probably be that we started out with the intention of sounding like REM playing a bunch of Richard Thompson numbers and seem to have ended up sounding like The Cure doing some Elvis Costello demos. Frankly, I blame my eighties musical genes and their predisposition toward overuse of the chorus pedal. Ah well, you can’t have everything.

Where would you put it?*
*Steven Wright.           

Friday, October 26, 2012

Always the Last to Know

I’d been up at five, done a stint seeing how the magic is created behind the scenes at Radio Suffolk, gone in to the day job, put in a full shift there, returned home and was looking forward to forty winks before MyWifeKellyBrook and our First-Born returned from their busy day of smearing paint over themselves and playing Hide-the-Pasta in each others’ hair. Just before turning in, I thought I’d check a couple of the social media networks to see what was happening on the mean, mean super highways of cyber space (does anyone under twenty still call it that, by the way? I doubt it).
The first status update that caught my eye was that of the manager of the venue where 22-years-behind-the-distortion-pedal-and-proud-of-it evergreen hardy perennial popstrels Gods Kitchen were due to perform our annual rite of passage (if we don’t play at least one gig a year the rains won’t come, and the crops will fail. You may not believe that – hell, I may not believe it, but do you want to be the one to blink first and find out?).  It seemed that the powers that be in charge of procurement had finally lost patience and pulled the plug - quite literally in this case – with immediate effect. I checked my phone. I checked my email inbox. I checked my Facebook messages folder. I dialled 1471. I even, lord help me, fired up Google+ to see if there’d been a missive of some sort in there. There hadn’t.

Fair dos to the bloke, he probably wasn’t in the best frame of mind at the time, but once I’d managed to get hold of him by the expedient method of dropping him a text, he apologised, said it was out of his hands, and got back to (presumably) drowning his sorrows somewhere - I’d guess not at the pub, as they’d already apparently declined to deliver any beer there for a couple of weeks. When a bar is being stocked courtesy of Tesco Direct, the writing’s probably on the wall. Sadly this left me with no promoter, no venue and no PA but - unusually for us - some confirmed customers.  That restorative nap suddenly seemed an awfully long way away.
After a couple of calls I got through to Val, patron saint of Ipswich Musicians for many a year now, who confirmed that she had nothing planned for Sunday evening and would be delighted to host our soiree. “Give us time to get cleared up after jazz lunch” she added. “Mind you, you lot can plug in and go, can’t you? Some of these kids today need four hours to soundcheck”. Phew. Dammit! 'Plug in'! Another text frantically tapped out – it takes me longer than most ppl because I still capitalise names, put in apostrophes and insist on writing the recipient’s full postal address in the text of the message, but I managed it in fairly good time. James from Live at the Institute, purveyors of quality entertainment to the good folk of Posh North Essex said he was happy to oblige. Seconds later, That Nice David Booth, contracted to record the evening’s entertainment for posterity, responded to ask if I needed a mixing desk.
In about half an hour I’d managed to relocate the show, find a PA, alert our fanbase* and thereby avert a potentially distressing dark-and-boarded up venue experience for all concerned. And some of us had already booked babysitters. Would it have been so very difficult to drop us a text in order to tell us that the gig was off in the first place? 

*We refer to it as the fanbase in a very similar fashion to that of Murray from Flight of The Conchords.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Importance of being Gibbon

In 1981 my friend Joey and I were in need of a third in order to complete the line up of Joey and The Juggernauts (previously Brute Force and Ignorance) and we called on a friend of ours who was pretty handy with all sorts of things musical. For a start he played the solo on Santana’s Samba Pa Ti with a group, had dabbled with keyboards, was part of the Woodbridge Excelsior Brass Band and thus clearly knew his way around the dots and squiggles (which is more than we did) and so, we reasoned, he was almost certainly able to pick up the rudiments of drumming without too much practise - which of course he managed admirably expediently. His enthusiastic snare rattling through our version of Status Quo’s What You’re Proposing remains an oft-recalled and fond memory for me to this day. That and the boiler suit he habitually wore on stage which gave him the air of a mildly absent roadie who’d wandered in from a Hawkwind gig.
Musical polymath that he is, I’ve pretty much had Gib’s name down first on the team sheet for anything I’ve been involved in subsequently, especially since he’s settled down on the bass guitar as his principal form of expression. Since those halcyon days of denim jackets and the twenty four minute version of Albatross we enjoyed one Christmas he’s also contributed keyboards to The Picturehouse Big Band (see popular musical memoir Do You Do Any Wings for details), harmony vocals to Gods Kitchen and a trombone solo to the first Songs from The Blue House album, for which he also scored a string part on the big closing number.
I’ve really only ever seen him out of his depth on one occasion when, after unrehearsedly stepping in for The Star Club – a Beatles specialist band doing a favour for our mate Paul - our host wandered in to breakfast in the pub the day after the gig and cheerily greeted him with a “Well, you were shit last night, weren’t you?” Generally though, he just needs a key and a count and you can confidently leave him to his own devices.

Having commenced rehearsals for Gods Kitchen’s 22nd Coming** at the end of this month it was enervating to find the usually reliably assured Gib peering at the set list with an air of confusion. “I have absolutely no idea what some of these are” he announced. “To be fair, some of them haven’t actually been aired this century” contributed drummer Stephen Dean*. Nevertheless we agreed that if I started playing the chords it might ignite some spark of recognition and he could join in at his own pace. After nineteen songs, to which he had played along perfectly, added harmony vocals and reminded me of a couple of lyrics mid-lapse, we agreed that we could probably pull this off after all.

On the way home he wondered out loud whether I recalled the title of a song we used to play with Picturehouse and who it was originally by? After a few bars of humming I identified it as The Circle by Ocean Colour Scene. Did he want a copy, I enquired. “Oh Christ no – I thought it was awful. Well, it certainly was when we played it”. He turned on the radio. “Oh fuck me, it’s The Beatles”. He switched it off. We drove on in silence.

* Just back from a holiday in Turkey, where they had marvelled at the light glinting off the river he also had a splendid Radio 4 panel show-worthy quip about the phosphorus on the Bosphorus, but that needn’t detain us now.

** Gods Kitchen, everyman peddlers of bespoke guitar-based confessional beat music since 1992 will be celebrating our twenty-second consecutive year of gigging with a performance at The Grinning Rat, St. Helen’s Street, Ipswich on Sunday the 28th of October.

In line with received medical advice regarding our increasingly fragile hips, lights dimmed will be shortly before nine and carriages should be ordered for just after ten, meaning that everyone has time to have a nice nap after their Sunday dinner, wander down to the show, get home in good time afterwards, relieve the babysitter and still be in bed with a nice warm cocoa by the time Match of the Day 2 comes on. Entrance is free, however any long-time supporters of the band who are thinking of bringing their children should be prepared to provide proof of age (for them).

As well as playing material from the now digitally-available compilation South of Somewhere, the band (consisting of Shane ‘Ted Bidits’ Kirk on guitar and vocals, Stephen ‘Seamus Hussey’ Dean on drums, Richard ‘Gibbon’ Hammond on bass and long-time collaborator Steve ‘Wendell Gee’Constable on guitars) will be performing new, unreleased and never-before performed songs and welcoming some familiar faces on stage to guest with the group over the course of the evening.



Tuesday, September 25, 2012

My Andrew Mitchell Moment.

Before we start I should stress that the whole situation I am about to describe was resolved perfectly amicably, with apologies on both sides and with the band having been given permission to play one more song – we closed with a stirring version of I Fought the Law which, as you will see, was the perfect choice to defuse any lingering resentment regarding the presence of the filth. I mean respected members of Her Majesty’s Constabulary. We were young. And it was in no way as confrontational as that time Steve got stopped on his bike and had to answer truthfully when the officer got out his notebook, licked his pencil and asked for his name. “Umm…Constable”.
How we found ourselves setting up the band’s equipment on the lawn outside the nurses’ flats in the first place is a little unclear from this distance. If I recall correctly it wasn’t terribly apparent the morning after either. All we can know for certain is that it seemed a terribly good idea to perform for the good people of the nursing profession and, hey, if a few punks from the pub turned up too, what was the harm? Bearing in mind that this was in the days when closing time really meant closing time I have no idea how we gathered either all the gear or all those people and managed to rendezvous about two miles from the town centre where we’d been drinking until eleven o’clock, but we did.

After a few spirited renditions of popular classics of the day it became apparent that not everyone shared our enthusiasm for al fresco beat pop, especially not at that time of night, as the familiar silhouette of a police Transit van hove into view across the street. Emerging from the bowels of the machine came a slight figure - prodded, it seemed, by some other, visibly burlier figures, who continued to remain seated. It was maybe a trick of the light that made it look as if their shoulders were shaking slightly in the moonlight.
As the young officer approached us The Singer sidled over to me and raised an issue of concern. “I know this guy – I was at school with him”. It’s endearing, I think, that in the time of Thatcher’s Britain - Orgreave, anti-nuclear rallies and all - our principal concern in coming into the orbit of our local mob-handed police force was one of social embarrassment. We stopped the performance, he approached closer, the outer tendrils of our audience circled behind him, murmuring oaths in stage whispers. Tension prickled on the backs of our cut-off t-shirts. It was clear that he had also recognised his old playground chum and was not relishing the stand off. Vague hoots from the van drifted across the greensward. “I don’t want to seem like a wanker, Steve…” he began.

“That’s odd” replied his erstwhile confrère, “Because you look like one”.


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Everybody Else is Doing It So Why Can’t We?

You know what it’s like with these groups. A new audio format comes out and suddenly they’re back on the reunion trail plugging some old material that they’ve been dining out off ever since they put it out on eight track cartridge in the seventies. CD, Laserdisc, Betamax, 5:1 Surround Sound Remix, 180 gram vinyl mono remaster, Earworm, 28-BIT reverse-processed graphite Phonautograph – it’s just a ruse to get us to part with our hard-earned cash one more time. As Agent K. remarks wryly in Men in Black as he toys with hitherto unknown alien sound reproduction technology – “…guess I’ll have to buy the White Album again”.
Then again, if you never made any money in the first place and you find yourself with time on your hands, well, why not? Thanks to the kind auspices and good grace of Blue House Records impresario James B. Partridge, who also supplied the sleeve notes (“Gods Kitchen is a most peculiar band, having been around for probably more years than they’ve played gigs…”) our back catalogue is once again available for your listening pleasure at a literally giveaway price.

Even as I write, wheels are in motion, plans are afoot, eddies in the time-stream continuum (“Oh, er, is he..?”), yellowing set lists are being retrieved from the bottom of drum cases and guitars dusted off in order to bring you the whole Gods Kitchen live experience in all its faded grandeur and glory. I tell you – if Led Zeppelin hadn’t been doing that countdown thing on their Facebook timeline this’d have been front page news this week. 

Gods Kitchen on Bandcamp - 

(When asked “What sort of music do you do?” I usually refer people to the gig intro once presented by BBC Radio Suffolk’s Simon Talbot, which included the phrase “Skag Rock, Bubble Pop, Tight Arsed Brazilian Loon Jazz, Skippy Dippy, Welsh Urban Shouting, Fringe Drone and Shatner”. I’d like to be able to categorise/pigeonhole us, as that would make it so much easier to get gigs, but so far I’ve not been able to. Still, as Shev out of The Bandicoots used to say in one of his stage announcements, “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time. Or you can be in The Cranberries”).   

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Start One of Your Own

"Back when I was someone, I used to write these songs[1] – they used to start in G or F, and they were all four minutes long. There was Gaz on drums, Don on bass and another guy on lead[2]. They’ve all grown up and got proper jobs – they’ve got cats and kids to feed. Now I’m playing in a covers band[3], we do Taxman and I’m Down and the money pours to a superstore on the outskirts of town. When the landlord shouts at ten past time “Hey, play some Rolling Stones!”[4]  Well, if you want a band to play Brown Sugar, start one of your own[5].
They pulled down The Roberts[6] and The Mills[7], they put car parks where they stood. The Milestone[8] changed its name again and now it’s gone for good. But when we used to jam at Duke’s, no-one really cared who used to own the amps or drums, we all used to share. Now I’m playing in a covers band, we do Taxman and I’m Down and the money pours to a superstore on the outskirts of town. When the drunkard shouts “Hey - play one more before you all go home!” Well, if you want a band to play all night, go on, start one of your own.

You can play in a covers band, do country, blues, or swing; Northern Soul, rock n’ roll, whatever is your thing. But I get on stage now and them and I sing these songs alone[9]. I just wanted to be on an MP3 with something of my own."  

In my experience there's nothing quite so likely to nark a non-paying audience as the sight of a pub band putting their guitars back on their stands, switching off their amplifiers and coiling up some leads at the end of a performance, for this usually means that the evening is nearly over. Encouraging as it is that the good people wish to enjoy your company further, an entreaty to continue the performance can sometimes be expressed in less than gracious terms - for instance the spittle and cigarette breath demand that Picturehouse "...earn your fucking money" which once followed a lengthy third encore extemporisation on the theme of All Day and All of the Night in Stowmarket didn't really engender a warm feeling and a desire to resume the performance in any of our hearts. 
As you will probably have surmised, the above entry is my (slightly weary) response to this sort of regular experience, set to music and which the Songs from The Blue House band very kindly indulged me in to the point where That Nice David Booth fired up Spotify to familiarise himself with Neil Young’s Out on the Weekend and even agreed to drape a tea towel over his snare in order to edge closer toward the requisite early seventies getting it together in the country drum feel I was insisting upon.

Stephen Constable later came in to the studio and helped multi track the backing vocals and John Bennett (The High Llamas) dropped a suitably spiky guitar part in that helped tie the whole thing together with Nick Zala’s ever-sympathetic pedal steel reading on his part. It didn’t really fit with the rest of the IV album and so has been addended to our version of You’re So Vain (largely vocally performed by the sparky and delightful Canadian folk chanteuse Cara Luft) as the b-side, b/w or c/w, depending on your point of reference, of what would have been referred to in the olden days as ‘a single’. Ironically, one of the charges regularly levelled against us in our Star Club days was that we were a bit too full of ourselves.       

You can buy it here.

[1] At the Celestion Suffolk Rock and Pop competition in 1986 I won a lovely trophy in the ‘Best Song’ category.
[2] The ‘other guy’ was Gibbon – now, of course, playing bass on this particular track.  
[3] Written at the time when my main going concern was The Star Club, a Beatles specialist band. You wouldn’t believe the amount of opprobrium that can be directed at four mates who like to get out of the house at the weekends, hang out together and maybe play a few Beatles tunes for money both online and in person.  
[4] Many of these sorts of anecdotes and adventures are captured in “Do You Do Any Wings?”
[5] Not as snarky as it sounds. Many’s the occasion we’ve been entreated to strike up a stirring version of something or another so that an audience member can sing it for us, only to be berated for not knowing how the song goes. I always used to think that if someone was that desperate to perform in public then there was an obvious solution…
[6] The Earl Roberts hosted many, many of the most notorious evenings enjoyed by Ipswich’s glittering musiciarati, from our live Beatles Karaoke night (we pinned our set list behind the bar and invited guest vocalists up to front the band) to jam nights and indie gigs, a tradition now maintained by former landlady Val at her new home at The Steamboat Tavern. They really did pave paradise and put up a parking lot.  
[7] I did my first public band show and second ever solo gig at The Albion Mills. It was my local, my lock-in, my proving ground and, one particular evening, the location of a very late night game of strip spoof which put many of our royal family’s antics in perspective. All that remains now is a bus stop named after the pub that used to stand there.  
[8] The Milestone hosted our first faltering steps as Songs from The Blue House, was a home game for The Star Club and nurtured Picturehouse beyond all reasonable expectations, hosting many gigs including our series of fancy dress concerts, at one of which – the pyjama party – only one, subsequently rather self-conscious, audience member made the effort.   
[9] Obviously this is a bit of a misnomer at this point, but you get the idea.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Why The Long Face?

Community Radio is a marvellous thing - it gives a voice to those who would otherwise be reduced to, say, muttering things at the bus stop, sending Spotify playlists to their friends or writing stories about their children on blogs. Here's a good example of all of the above, taken from a recent performance on ICRFM, wherein three long-faced gentlemen extemporise at length on subjects close to their hearts, including that time Martyn found a bloke asleep in his driveway after a heavy evening out, my night with The Levellers, Neale's 'Why The Long Quiz?' and Phil Bryer's 'None of Your Business'. Come on in, the water's lovely.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

"...and *he* is very far away..."

We took our little boy to his first camping festival this weekend - The Levellers' Beautiful Days, where I saw The Waterboys, Public Image Limited, Midlake, Richard Thompson, The Travelling Band, Bellowhead and Three Daft Monkeys (all of whom were absolutely on top form) among others, and Lord Barchester saw two theatre group soundchecks before deciding at one minute to showtime that he was bored and wanted some pasta. Same group two days running, I should add. At two and a half he was also fairly distracted by things like trees with eyes, the bus which doubled as a tea room and a giant metal sculpture of a dragon (which he named Blackie), was intrigued by Bellowhead, and very much enjoyed banging a couple of plastic pails along to Alabama 3 in company with a host of other small people behind the sound tower. 

From the top of the field the stage is rather far away in terms of his perspective, and we did have a bit of a Father Ted-esque conversation regarding the relative size of the performers on stage compared to him. At about a quarter to Levellers at the climax of the festival on Sunday evening he announced that he'd quite like to go back to the tent, brush his teeth and go to sleep, which did at least leave his mother free to unleash her inner fifteen year old detached from the pressures of trying to keep tabs on a small boy in the dark, glowsticks attached to his trouser pockets or no. "Mummy is staying to watch the little singing man" he proposed. "She is, that's right" I said.  

As I got him ready for bed he chatted away, making sense of the world as only small boys can. "I have got feet" he announced. I agreed that all the evidence pointed to him indeed having feet. "Do you have feet?" he enquired. I confirmed that I did, demonstrably, have feet. Blackie has got feet" he further asserted before checking "...and has the little singing man got feet?". I posited that The Little Singing Man almost certainly had feet. As undressing continued he further confirmed that, anatomically, he had very much in common with me, Blackie, and The Levellers' front man, barring the obvious absence of a tail in myself, himself, and the man whose stirring rendition of One Way drifted across the clear Devon night even as we spoke.

This conversation continued at all stages throughout the changing and pyjama donning process and took in a wide range of aspects of anatomy along the way which is why, now, forever in my head I shall always think fondly of Mark Chadwick as "The Little Singing Man With The Winkie".         

Monday, August 13, 2012


…the new Songs from The Blue House album is out. If Derek Taylor were alive today and we had the budget he’d probably have composed some chin-strokingly erudite sleeve notes over which one could pore late into the night, searching for that elusive hidden meaning, the fin de siècle, that certain je ne sais quoi for us. But he isn’t, so we’ve had to do it ourselves. One thing that has become plain over the past few years is that while I’m quite prepared to explain at length what my songs are about, even going so far as to point out the hitherto overlooked (or overwrought) metaphor-ridden middle eight that I think you should pay particular attention to, La Mulley hardly ever does - hence her songs remain elusive whispers on the ether - quite literally ethereal. For example it’s been five years now and I still don’t know what Her, from ‘Tree’, is about.       
IV Sleeve Notes -

Friday, July 27, 2012

“No-one wants to hear about your kids…”

I was listening to the equivalent of the extra disc from a Songs from The Blue House box set this morning as, while looking for something else on the CDR shelf, I had stumbled across a copy of some early mixes for ‘Tree’, which included the songs that didn’t make it onto the final album. We whittled our initial selection of around fifteen or sixteen numbers down to the final running order after a lengthy process of deliberation and reference to outside panels of the great, good and discerning of taste (Mark Ellen, then editor of The Word magazine, gamely took part and expressed his concern on a later podcast that he may have mortally offended “Boggins the bass player” by marking an entry down. He hadn’t).
The main thing that the excluded items share - in common with a couple of things recorded for, but due to be left off our forthcoming album - is a lyrical theme based around children - their care, maintenance and/or lack of presence in the room. It seems that although we as listeners are prepared to make time to hear about loves lost, life on the road and the increasing difficulty in procuring quality pharmaceuticals whilst on tour, nothing stubs the metaphorical toe of the sombre artist’s listener than a not so subtly-nuanced reference to the pram in the hall. Even semi-carnally. For example who among us hasn’t reached for the skip button when John Lennon’s Beautiful Boy delays the arrival of Watching the Wheels by a full four minutes on Double Fantasy? Don’t answer that, by the way - there’s always one. The pram in someone else’s hall, on the other hand - that’s fair game – I mean who doesn’t love Hey Jude? (this question is posed on the same rhetorical basis as the above, by the way).         

Obviously there are clear reasons why a couple of the other songs I listened to this morning didn’t make the cut which are completely unconnected to their lyrical direction – quite why we were so enamoured of the concept of kicking a shed down a flight of stairs that we persuaded drummer Paul Read to unleash his inner Keith Moon in order to enhance the coda to a sensitive little acoustic ballad of Helen’s called Move is lost to posterity. That the session occurred on the same day as we had already spent fruitless hours getting him to overdub the sound of cutlery-as-percussion* may not be entirely unconnected. In the meantime, I’d forgotten we had even ever written a song called Move, let alone recorded and mixed it.
That we would dispatch a car to deepest Oxon. in order to collect Dame Judy Dyble, late of Fairport Convention and Trader Horne, so that she could deliver a beautiful reading of a nursery-baroque song called Little No-One and then leave it off the finished product seems an act of willful perversity. Playing it in the car, the string arrangement alone had me welling up, and that was even before I remembered that I’d had one exegesis of the lyric delivered to me with such blinding clarity** that I physically reeled at not having spotted the obvious before.

My Twinkly Lights was an early and obvious candidate for the cut, even before its twee and clunky sub-Springsteen blue collar narrative became bedecked with the sound of sleigh bells and a festive flute and fiddle part as a result of the banjo player identifying at an early run-through that the descending chord progression lent itself perfectly to the overlaying of the melody*** of the carol Good King Wenceslas, which was funny the first four times or so, but which we all agreed would pall over repeated listens – that and because we weren’t sure if Jingle Bells is out of copyright yet. We occasionally dig it out for downloads in December on the website however, and it is the first thing we offer to donate to festive charity compilations.             
The real pearl in the out-take oyster though, is When Mama Sings, wherein Our (ostensibly gruff and unsentimental) Glorious Leader fires up the ringing open chords and delivers a quite, quite moving paean to the smalls, featuring a remarkable intertwined violin and cello arrangement trumping even that of Little No-One. And a bouzouki. I think in the end we already had a slow ballad, possibly based around the pursuits of loves lost, life on the road and the increasing difficulty in procuring quality pharmaceuticals whilst on tour, and so it missed the final cut, or it may, of course, have been the bouzouki all along. Perhaps we should put them all on a special compilation for new parents to give to one another when they hit the three month mark and are so coincidentally full of love and bereft of sleep that they’ll listen to any old thing at three in the morning. We could call it “No-One Wants to Hear About Your Kids”.

 ps; ...and, as if by magic
Thank you, James.
*”More fork, more fork!” I remember being one of the instructions being bellowed over the talkback from the control room, which is not something anyone particularly needs in their headphones, let alone a drummer who’s taken the day off to help some mates out.       

** By one Keith Farnish by the bar at The Cropredy Festival in 1997.     
***"Tempus adest floridum" ("The time is near for flowering") first published in a 1582 song collection, if my Wiki cut and paste does not deceive me.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Old Friends, Bookends.

I spent a rather splendid evening rehearsing last night for one of my occasional forays into the live performance arena with gods kitchen (no capitals, no apostrophe), the group I formed with Stephen Dean and Gibbon after the largely unheralded demise of heavy big pop standard bearers As Is in 1991. That’s right, nineteen ninety one.

At the time we had a regular weekly routine of getting together every Thursday at Stephen’s house, where he had had the good taste and foresight, with the judicious application of a number of mattresses and some gaffa tape, to convert his cellar into a rudimentary rehearsal space. This meant both that we saved ourselves the unnecessary expense of renting out one of those proper air-conditioned soundproofed places with coffee making facilities and nice-looking rugs on the walls and that when we turned up we were already set up and good to get started. It also meant that during the week (in the days before cable TV and The West Wing box sets) it was possible to relax with one of those new-fangled discman CD players, a set of headphones, a full drum kit and The Best of The Band for an hour or so, until the next-door neighbour politely suggested that it was time for Coronation Street and while she was here, could she possibly have this month's rent?  
When he moved out I was only too pleased to take on the lease and the drum kit and occasionally extended the opportunity to rehearse in (literally) homely surroundings to a few friends having asked for contributions to the larder in lieu of something quite so vulgar as money. Hence the discovery on one occasion upon my return to the bachelor pile, having made myself scarce for the evening while a group made up of vegetarians practiced downstairs, of a box of PG Tips, two cans of ratatouille and a packet of runner beans. Some other times I'd get sausages. Occasionally there would be lewd notes referring to my girlfriend.

The deal with gods kitchen rehearsals was that we would warm up with a couple of things that we already knew (possibly last week’s homework) before moving on to polishing up some new material that I probably would have written during the week. At ten o’clock we’d finish off with another couple of songs from the repertoire or we’d busk a cover version someone had heard on the radio to see how far we could get through it before the momentum of the whole thing either overtook us and it collapsed in an ungainly heap in the middle of the floor or we miraculously made it through to the end. We’d then go to The Spread Eagle just around the corner to discuss the session over a couple of cool pints of Guinness. Regular as clockwork, every week at eight o'clock. 
The consistency of this routine meant that I had to come up with a regular stream of new material, if only to keep the rhythm section interested from one session to the next, which certainly helped keep my songwriting muscles supple and toned (the only things that were at this point) and also meant that we were pretty much in a constant state of readiness in case anything came up in terms of live opportunities. I’m not necessarily saying that we put our 10,000 Outliers hours in, but it did (and does) mean that even without having played together for a couple of years now we can pretty much get together at the drop of a party invitation, do a count in and rattle out half a dozen numbers straight off the bat without pausing for breath as, gratifyingly, we did last night.

One of the things I was most pleased about was that none of the stuff we went through sounded out of time (chronologically at least, if not tempo-rhythmically). With so much guitar music under the metaphorical bridge these days it’s hard for anything to not sound like it is tipping a nod and a wink to what has gone before anyway, but I know that our Muswell Hill still beat Oasis’s Kinktastic She’s Electric out of the gate by a good four years (“This is about that bloke who twatted you one in The Old Times that once, isn’t it?” enquired Mr. Wendell on second guitar) and the recorded version of The Boy Who Loved Aeroplanes still has an expressive grandeur that speaks volumes beyond its humble four track origins*.
By twenty past ten we have worked through the set we are going to play at the weekend. “Ted Bidits!” calls Stephen cheerily, the traditional The Big Wheel-inspired count down to curfew. I start a chugging rhythm with muted chords on the guitar. “When I said…” I begin singing “…that I loved you, I told a white lie, don’t you know?” It is an old song of the drummer’s, a twelve bar in E and we rattle it off with what passes for panache in a converted woodshed in the middle of the Suffolk countryside. “And that…” he chuckles at the song’s conclusion “…is what happens when you let twenty one year olds listen to George Jones”. Wendell and I consider the implications. “Wouldn’t it have been great at the jubilee concert if they’d booked the wrong G. Jones?” he posits. “George Jones, rocking a hula hoop and singing She Thinks I Still Care” I tender. “Now that…” he assents “…I would pay to see”.

*I like to think that the early work producer Owen Morris put in on some demos for me a few years earlier paid off in spades for him when called in later to work on Champagne Supernova.

Monday, July 09, 2012

How Mark Ellen made me a Rock Dad.

It’s been a bad month for those of us who like our popular culture expertly deconstructed and served up with picture caption jokes, as monthly compendium of aperçus The Word draws a discreet veil over its operations and ceases publication. The wailing and gnashing of cappuccino cups has been heard far and wide across the net – at one point the website turned into a virtual Kensington Palace – and among the tributes to the monthly’s wit and erudition and consensus that they really couldn’t have done any more in terms of positioning themselves in the new marketplace whilst determinedly fulfilling their manifesto to the last, there emerged smaller, more personal stories of how the magazine literally changed people’s lives. I have one such reflection, which even if the events therein didn’t move my life on to a different course, then certainly caused me to sail a bit closer to the wind than I otherwise would have done. In fact one could argue that the whole interactive Word weekend was a barrel of luffs*. It began with the July 2006 issue – number 41 – which contained a small article and jokey quiz about the rise of the Rock Dad. Tucked away at the end was a brief paragraph. “Are you a Rock Dad in a band?” it enquired, going on to suggest that if there were a collection of Rock Dads who had a demo MP3 and a decent photograph to hand then sending it in to the mailbox pretty sharpish might mean that such a group could find themselves opening The Cornbury Festival a few weeks later. As it happened, we did have a demo – a version of Blue Oyster Cult’s (Don’t Fear) The Reaper that we had recorded at High Barn Studio in darkest Posh North Essex a few weeks earlier in lieu of a fee for performing at their beer festival. The rise of the electronic communication age meant that we didn’t even have to find a jiffy bag and a clean C-90 in order to send it off. 

I still have the email I received from Our Glorious Leader in which the earthly representatives of Development Hell communicated their pleasure with our submission and invited us to apply for wristbands forthwith. By lucky happenstance we had picked a song that David Hepworth used to have as his mobile phone ringtone, and so announcing our version with a banjo riff had apparently tickled the adjudicating panel and bumped us to the top of the queue. There followed a flurry of communications between (among others) a production manager now faced not only with Robert Plant’s backline demands but also some bunch from Suffolk who intended to bring a banjo, a mandolin and a fiddle player, but who remained the soul of affable helpfulness throughout both this period and the festival itself. A request for a publishing-spec photograph meant a hasty call to one James Kindred (@sketchybear) – now CEO of his own agency but back then the only guy we knew with a top-end camera and a Mac to edit on. His off the cuff art direction was of such quality that we ended up using shots from the session for the centerfold of our album Tree, and he got a call shortly afterward from the magazine asking if he was available to go and take some shots of Peter, Bjorn and John at Latitude in exchange for a weekend press pass. His portrait of them appeared in the next issue and he got a weekend out into the deal, so I think we all kicked a goal on that one.
We rounded up Simon Allen from High Barn to provide a friendly ear behind the mixing desk, and corralled James Munson to perform a similar task on monitors. They packed tents and gumboots and joined the parade. With our set to be shoehorned into the section immediately after Robert Plant’s crew’s sanctioning of the stage for his headline set and before the festival’s official start time he carefully line checked us all in the face of rising pressure, including our drummer’s rendition of ‘Moby Dick’ and appropriation of Rocco Deluca and The Burden’s cowbell, and then did such a sterling job on us that he was invited to stay up there for the rest of the day. I believe he may have had a hand in refereeing Hayseed Dixie’s sound – again, a case of good deeds not only being their own reward, but offering a little bonus on the side.
At one point a film crew came backstage to interview us. I answered the “What’s a Rock Dad?” question at length, a combination of nerves and bravado, for what seemed like fifteen minutes. The interviewer turned to vocalist Helen. “And what’s a Rock Mum?” they ventured. “Pretty much that…with stretch marks” she deadpanned. When, shortly afterwards, we were introduced to our host and sponsor - one Mark Ellen - he immediately pounced on the remark, which he’d heard relayed anecdotally by one of the film crew,  and guffawed his appreciation while making us all feel immediately at ease with his story of the crushed lavender sprigs in the VIP restaurant area and a good-naturedly dismissive Rock Stars today shake of the head as he compared and contrasted the catering at great festivals past – he may have mentioned Weeley, or Bickershaw. He complimented us on the photo we’d submitted and that they’d published in the magazine’s follow up story (“Oh, which cover did it reminded me of? The Allmans! That’s it - The Allmans – what’s the album that’s from…? ‘Brothers and Sisters’!”) and good naturedly denied being The Rocking Vicar (“No-one knows…”). To be honest we’d probably have spent the next twenty minutes quite happily chatting with him rather than lurking behind the stage checking our watches. Having carefully made a note on a card so as not to inadvertently introduce us as Songs from the Blue Room (“We get that a lot…”) he made a short and funny announcement about what was coming next and let us loose on a big stage in front of a field capable of holding twenty thousand people.
I’ve mentioned in past blogs how the next day I bumped into him, sans pass, and got him back past security (“This is the editor of Word Magazine, one of the festival’s biggest sponsors…”) on condition that I could meet Peter Buck (He made a point of ensuring that he got my wife’s name right so that when he did the introductions he didn’t confuse her with someone else), and there’s a whole chapter in All These Little Pieces devoted to our weekend out at the festival, but none of this would have been possible without someone at The Word coming up with the idea of the Rock Dad, green lighting the idea of an article and then throwing the idea that they might get an actual band of Rock Dads onstage at the festival itself into the ring to top off the cake (I believe that the next year Ellen himself took to the stage with his band The Love Trousers). For that alone, notwithstanding nine years of entertainment for lively minds, thank you The Word. I shall miss you.        

 *Other puns are available.

There is a video of us performing Reaper and a song called Not That Kind of Girl at Cornbury here -
It's MySpace, so mind the cobwebs and try not to disturb the dust too much.