Thursday, April 11, 2013
It was what, eighty-six, eighty-seven? Mr Wendell and I were in the fullest flush of our baggy shirts and pixie boots period – he more so than I, as I was still coming off the back of a serious Neil Young phase (still am, always will be) and so I trended toward the checked shirt and tasselled scarf rather than the suede that he favoured, shielded behind Blues Brothers shades but both of us in thrall to The Big Music. It was the fag end of the Thatcher years and so we had more than enough to keep us going in terms of targets for our lyrical barbs - Rod Stewart and Sun City, the French and Greenpeace, sexual politics which I barely understood (and am still working on) and politicians who were “…scanning the map for an island to defend”. The big beat of Mel Gaynor and the fierce Celtic hotwired soul of The Waterboys were our touchstones. Spitting Image was on the television, John Hegley was on at Glastonbury and Billy Bragg was putting out singles about The Diggers. These were heady times indeed.
In the middle of all of this we (were) entered into what was officially termed The Celestion Suffolk Rock and Pop Competition. Due to enforced line-up changes we only had five songs rehearsed at this point, which we played in every round. The biggest, most epic one of these was called ‘Empire Song’. “Stand straight, stand tall you can fight them all” ran the chorus “...it’s an attitude of mind. But your pleas for reform won’t keep you warm, and what you’re looking for, you won’t find”. We were non-com observers – grandiose, bellicose, living in a world of faux-grandeur that allowed no compromise between the new gold dream and the tumble on the sea – I, the lyricist, Wendell my willing accomplice mouthpiece. Take that, Bono! The song also had a lovely D-C-G chord progression in the verse that lent itself to a arpeggiated part on the electric guitar which I very much enjoyed phasing and chorusing in that 80’s way, over a majestic backdrop of big snare, twelve string guitar and sustained Hammond organ chords.
We made it as far as the final of the competition and, knowing that we were up against the finest that Suffolk could produce (or at least the finest that had entered, had hit the various judging panels’ buttons and who had all turned up in time for each round) we knew we had to exert a bit of what we referred to in our off-message moments as stage presence if we were going to take home any of the various trophies on offer. We had, after all (spoiler alert) beaten our main competition all hands down in the semi-final and were looking to repeat the experience (it’s complicated – I think a precursor to the Duckworth-Lewis method may have been involved). They, similarly, knew they were going to have to up their game.
Settling into our not-at-all rehearsed routine Wendell and I threw shapes, postured, jumped on and off monitors and, during one contemplative post-middle eight section, spontaneously sat together on the edge of the drum riser. I picked out harmonics, he faux-wearily addressed the state of the nation in song. The verse built, the chords achieved a certain stridency…I felt a hand in the small of my back. It gently urged me forward. “Up” it said. “Up, and let’s take these fuckers on”. To the casual observer we probably looked like a couple of hectoring students caught mid-SU bar debate (neither of us were students – the hectoring part is still open to what I suspect would be a very short discussion) sharing a microphone stand picked out in the stage centre spotlight. In our heads we were Jagger and Richards, Strummer and Jones, Tom Robinson, Mike Scott, Paul Weller in all his badly-fringed red wedge fury. “Stand straight, stand tall, you can fight them all, it’s an attitude of mind!” we shouted in unison. “But your pleas for reform won’t keep you warm, and what you’re looking for you won’t find”. I’ll remember the moment of that proprietal hand pushing me forward, reassuring me that we were in this together and that here was someone who really, truly believed in me until death or dementia take me.
We came second.