Sunday, May 12, 2019

You Take It On The Run, Baby.

For the latest date on our never-ending tour (of Stowmarket) we in The Picturehouse Big Band have decided to freshen up the set, and to this end had convened at The Drummer’s house to run through a couple of new songs. And by ‘new’ we mean “From !979”. With a nod to modernity, the other one was from 1982. No-one can accuse us of complacency or not knowing our audience, at least. During the meticulous deconstruction process at rehearsal we had discovered that the chords to the verse of the former rather neatly matched the intro to the latter, which at least narrowed down the number of different notes we’d had to learn, and the order in which to put them.

At the pop show itself we had a hearty turnout, bolstered by a number of familiar faces – The Other Guitarist wonders if, since we’d organised our diaries with each other and the landlady, perhaps the audience could do similarly, and then we’d all know where we were going to be, and when. This seems sensible, and we resolve to sync our calendars. We are also joined by a number of members of the Young Farmers Club, who are celebrating the birthday of one of their brethren and are intent on hearing some Fleetwood Mac. Happily we are able to partially satiate their needs, and relieved to learn that the acronym of their organisation is no to be applied, as so often in the past, to us collectively as a result.

Everyone is on good form, and quips and rejoinders are soon bouncing around the room in what some might consider a totally unprofessional manner. Even The Keyboard player (normally taciturn to the point of hermitry) regales us with a good one about the pair of shoes he bought off a drug dealer. I am not yet fully aware of how fortuitous this act will eventually prove. At one point there is a small issue with the input socket proving to have a Norman Collier-like effect on the growling output of the amp during my stint on the bass, and which can only be ameliorated by tippy-toeing, twisting a hip and resting the lead on my thigh. The resulting pose could probably best be rendered as 'effete Phil Lynott'. At the time I considered that this would be the campest thing I’d do all weekend.

To be honest, a couple of the re-lifed additions to the set* haven’t really worked as well as they could have done, and we are reflecting on this in the car park, post-performance. “I’m not sure” says The Singer “...that ‘Go Your Own Way’ really worked. I think it’s probably the singing”. The playing didn’t really help pull it off” I add, remembering the solo which was probably less Lindsey Buckingham than Lindsey Lohan in its execution. The Other Guitarist wanders over. “We think that ‘Go Your Own Way’ didn’t really work” The Singer repeats. “It’s the vocals”. And the playing” I add. There is a pause as we consider the ramifications. The lights were good…” offers The Drummer.

In the meanwhilst I am happy that my signature big power ballad showcase - ‘Take It On The Run’ by The REO Speedwagon big haired big beat combo - has gone as well as it has.

Fast forward twenty four hours and I am outside a bar in Brighton**, about to drop into a Karaoke night organised and hosted by two flamboyantly coiffed and be-sequinned drag queens. I am unsure of where I fit into the current heirarchy in the grand scheme of things. Am I a Bear?” I enquire of my wife, upon whose invitation the pair of us are here. No. Phill Jupitus is a Bear”. She pauses somewhat deliberately. “At best you’re just a man with a Beard”. I think she’s doing it on purpose.

Unsurprisingly, the evening is a hoot. Toward the the end of the night, I am aware that there are moves afoot to coax me on to the stage in order that I can better be exhibited for the delectation of the throng. Mrs Skirky is being badgered to provide intel on something I might be prepared to perform for the crowd’s enjoyment. In order to try and stave off my blushes she thinks of the most heterosexual number - which they will absolutely, definitely not have in their library - that she can. He sometimes does ‘Take It On The Run’ by REO Speedwagon” she says, which is why, five minutes later, I find myself on stage about to perform for an archly critical audience. We are, to paraphrase Dorothy, not in Stowmarket any more. I am handed a microphone, and the crowd hushes expectantly.

So” I begin “I bought these shoes off a drug dealer...”

*We played basically the same two sets throughout our 2018 residency, but to be fair that was once every four months rather than twice a weekend straight for a year as some of our peers do.

**Long story.

Sunday, May 05, 2019

May Day! May Day!

I am drawn to Alexandra Park, in the heart of swinging downtown Ipswich, to celebrate International Workers’ Day in the company of Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogs, a number of worthies from the international community, and some musicians. Obviously, these are not mutually exclusive positions to keep. 
Upon arrival I am greeted with the news that Luke – on sound – has not received any stage specs, specifically our careflly crafted series of eight-by-ten black and white photographs with the circles and arrows on the back of each one explaining what each one is. He seems ambivalent about this at best. I explain that we need three mics, four DI’s, two amplifier hook ups and that there may be a marimba. He seems momentarily enlivened. “A marimba?” he says. “”No, not really” I reply. He is momentarily crestfallen.

The last time I was here Picturehouse performed on the morning after my stag do, which had - among other things – involved kidnapping the landlord of our local and forcing him to perform Leo Sayer’s “You Make Me Feel Like Dancin’”. The stag do, not the gig. However today I am not only playing, but ostensibly stage managing. This role will, due to the absolute professionalism of all of our performers, the aformentioned Luke, MC Jock Davis and a generous backstage binful of ice and beer, mostly be a blissfully stress-free series of tasks, principally involving humping drum kits off’ve stage left and replacing them with equally deep-throated kits from the reserve stash to the right. Jock – clipboard to hand and inviting all performers to furnish him with biographical, geographical and commercial details with which to entrance our audience – is on the stopwatch. I’m pretty much looking for band members for whom to hand their individually tailored thank-you letters containing their hourly stipend - again, a much-appreciated gesture which many, many other local events could save themselves a great deal of online opprobrium by adopting.

Mr. Wendell observes the young people’s stage equipment with a quiet bewondermont. “They’ve got so much!” he observes. “I was a bit concerned about leaving gear round the back, but they’d probably look at it and have a bit of a laugh". “If we’re lucky” I say “They might take pity on us and leave us something extra”.“Like Santa” he says. Later there will be bass player whose foot pedals control the time signatures, key changes and rhythm pads to the rest of the band via onstage in-ear monitoring. Satisfyingly, he also has a Flanger*.
The Dogs performance is brisk and hearty. There has been some discussion around what constitutes a ‘festival set’, but in the end we just decided to do what we do, including the power ballad and the polka number. Turny is not on singing form, and so a late couple of substitutions remind us of just how much we have in the tank, material-wise. Always a happy luxury to be able to afford. We get the ‘one more’ signal and finish with ‘Nelson’, which is really starting to adopt the show-stopping mantle we all quietly hoped it deserved.

“Thank you” says Helen. “I’m now off to put on a big jumper”.

*I know. Me too.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

This just in...or ‘out’, rather.

Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogs, as a band, has always been very much a live entity. Songs tend to be stretched and manipulated, so that cues and endings are dictated by the feel of the moment, and communicated by nods and cues. This does not not always sit well with Fiddly, a man who prefers to operate under formal arrangements, at least in musical terms. “That’s not the way we did it last time” has become a familiar, if plaintive, refrain at Dog Central. With this in mind he suggested that we record some rehearsals in order to fix the format of our material, and put an end to all that tedious mucking about in hyperspace once and for all.

We did so, and it turned out that when we listened back to our efforts we had some pretty special performances on disk. What if, we thought to ourselves, we tidied up a few of the looser ends and mixed these down properly? And so on a few spare evenings and weekends we tramped out to The Hovel – Fiddly’s rehearsal studio-cum-shed – sometimes singly, and on occasion en masse, in order to redo a few errant harmonies, fix the odd timing aberration and generally buff up the bridges.

Sometimes we dropped things out entirely, and on one occasion a couple of us turned up to find that someone had had a moment of inspiration and added a complementary vibraphone part while no-one else was watching. It was very much an old-school approach in terms of getting it together in the country without click tracks, sans autotune, and eschewing cut and paste technology. What you have here is essentially the sound of a bunch of people playing some songs in a room (even if – admittedly - not all on the same day).

Our thanks are due to the devotion to duty of Fiddly Richard, who spent an awfully long time in his back garden either compiling endless alternate mixes for our approval, wiring up headphones, tracking down errant buzzes in the system and enthusiastically chasing pigeons away in order that their incessant cooing wouldn’t bleed onto the vocal tracks.  

Singing and playing by Steve ‘Mr. Wendell’ Constable, Richard ‘Gibbon’ Hammond, Shane ‘Skirky’ Kirk, Richard ‘Fiddly’ Lockwood, Robert ‘Young, Young Bob’ Lockwood, Helen ‘La’ Mulley and Tony ‘Ellis’ Winn.

The Misfits written by Shane Kirk
There Is Nothing (The Wave) written by Helen Mulley and Shane Kirk
What’s The Moonlight For? written by Tony Winn
Harrogate written by Shane Kirk

Monday, February 25, 2019

If it ain't broke, don't break it.

This crazy business of what we call ‘show’ is, as the more spiritually inclined of our brethren might say, a house with many rooms. Up the top end of the East Wing are your international hyper stars, charging the far side of your average pub band’s five way split for a single ticket. Over there, a multitude of jobbing musicians who are prepared to sofa surf and forgo weekly laundry in the hopes of some day becoming one of the former. Round our neck of the woods there is a carousel of fetes, festivals and showcases that you can hop on to sometimes merely by being in the right place at the right time, above averagely talented or simply charming to work with. Having all three in your locker doesn’t hurt at all. Luckily we have Helen for that.

Having been on three sides of the great divide (artist, promoter, hands-on stage wrangler) I appreciate that there are traditional mores to be maintained if everyone’s going rub along the same way. That’s not to say that there isn’t a way to kick over the statues and revolutionise the industry, but I don’t see it happening at my level any time soon. Trying to set up some summer shows for my (our) band can involve filling in multiple application forms, which in turn might require three different social media addresses, or you might remind those nice folk you played for last year that you’re still available, pulling in some personal favours (at this level more in hope than expectation) or simply being pleasantly surprised when someone gets in touch and asks if you’re free on such-and-such a date. It’s all-consuming, and I don’t even do this full time.

Being part of a seven piece band means that these can often feel like Sisyphean processes, and so if you ask me, the least you can do is try to be prompt, concise and polite. It was a pleasure and a privilege indeed to speak directly to an actual human on Friday night and have a gig booked with them by lunchtime on the following Monday. Similarly, a club got in touch with us over the weekend, and by this morning I was compiling a fifty word biography, sourcing a half-decent photo and reading their mission statement regarding what PA they did and didn’t have, how they’d like it used, looking up a couple of references they’d given us as to what to expect and agreeing a fee in advance. And this is for a show in December.

In contrast, we were approached at the end of January by a venue who are proclaiming their commitment to showcasing the best in local original music (thanks for the inclusive vote of confidence, by the way) and really looking to make their mark on the local arts scene. They’re doing it their own way, eschewing the norms and forging forward with all confidence. Good for them. Being in at the ground floor at such a venture can be the making of a band like us. Right place, right time, and all that. We replied straight away with a stage spec, links to our music and a pretty generous offer for our time and services, all as requested, and suggested a date when everyone could make it from the list they proffered. That date is now next week. So we don’t know if we’re playing, whether we need to grab our own PA, whether we’re being paid what we asked for – or at all - and if the gig is confirmed we have less than a week to round up some (or any) of our semi-devoted fanbase, many of whom are in the invidious position of having to organise a babysitter before they can think about devoting their occasional date night to listening to us over two-for-one cocktails.

I can’t help thinking that the old way works better.

Friday, February 01, 2019

"...really explore the studio space this time"

Mr. Wendell and I are exchanging text messages. In Ye Oldene Dayes we would probably have waited until it was six o’clock* and then rung each other whilst looking out of the window. It’s the weather, you see. We are due out at The Hovell (sic) to continue fixing and mixing the putative new Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogs EP but as Fiddly – de facto engineer, producer, remixer and designated Record Company Um & Err Man – points out, they don’t salt the roads out his way. Nevertheless, time and tide wait for no man** and so we embark on the potentially hazardous trip out to the middle of what the registered voters of Nowhere are said to regard amongst themselves as a bit of a backwater. Narnia-like, Fiddly’s garden is the snowiest of all the places we drive through on our journey. “I do my best work in these conditions” I remark over a steaming mug of tea in the kitchen. “Remember that session for the first Blue House album?” Fiddly does. “It took me four hours to get home from that one”.

We are due to have a bit of a listen to our work so far, Wendell has a harmony to do on one of the new songs, and we’re going to beef up the choruses of something that at this point has two official titles and may well end up with a third if it is not careful about how it conducts itself. In time-honoured fashion, I’ve also found a bouzouki part for the middle eight of the new one. “You’ve always got a bouzouki part for the middle eight” remarks Helen via email when she is informed of my honourable intentions regarding The Misfits. If you look at the text, black on white, in isolation, it could almost come across as admonitory. “He’s not putting a bouzouki up my middle eight!” responds Mr. Wendell via CC. And then he got off the bus...

Cheese shop sketch and Third Man Theme once again summarily avoided during the bouzouki work, we have time to review the various bits and bobs that Fiddly has appended to the rough mix of “What’s the Moonlight For?” AKA “What’s a Rainbow?” AKA “What’s The Moon Light For?”*** These turn out to be a number of percussion tracks, which he flips through in turn in much the same way as Heston Blumenthal might talk you through his latest tasting menu. With a flourish he tears away a cloth which turns out to have been covering a rude flight case. “Here’s the kit!” he proudly exclaims. There is a cabasa, there is a guiro, a tambourine. There are not one, but two cowbells. It’s like nepeta cataria, only for guitarists. We beaver away playing through the tracks and indicating that these are the rhythm parts we would like enacted forthwith, only ideally on the beat and without undue recourse to Bezzing around the studio at the same time – apparently it plays havoc with the close-miking. We check the forecast again. Snow storms due at half past nine. Time to move on.

Once Wendell is set up at the pop-shielded microphone, having been sternly instructed not to sway back and forth, we start with the vocal overdubs. It’s not a big room, and is cluttered - by now not least with a number of discarded percussion instruments – and so I am perched behind a drum kit, out of his eyeline so as not to be distracting, but air drumming enthusiastically along with the faint feed hissing from the headphones. “I can hear you, you know” he remarks laconically, as I attempt a stick spin which climaxes in me unsuccesfully attempting to pluck it from the air before it lands on a sixteen inch Paiste crash cymbal. “I think you should, er, go again” I remark as casually as someone who has just enacted a particularly avant-garde Bill Bruford-style roll around the kit should. Ever the pro, he nonetheless nails the next take (while I sit on my hands throughout) and upon listening back to double check for timing, phrasing and intonation errors, enthusiastically mimes the cajon part that portends the section where we come out of the instrumental bridge section and go into the middle eight he’s just double-tracked.

Fiddly bursts out of the wardrobe-sized control room, at remarkable speed for a man of his age. “That’s it!” he enthuses “That’s the tambourine part we need, right there!!”
“I was doing the diddley bit on the boxymathingy” protests Mr. Wendell.
This was bad grammar of course, but that is how Wendells talk when they are excited; I mean, in Narnia—in our world they usually don’t talk at all. 

*It is one of the great tragedies of our time that a generation has grown up with no appreciation of the rich seam of textual imagery contained within Mickey Jupp’s seminal 1979 pièce de résistance Switchboard Susan.

**We will enjoy a lengthy conversation with Fiddly regarding the riparian ownership rights of non-tidal waterways with specific reference to the Gipping above Needham Market. This is why it’s generally a good idea to get out there on time, especially if you want to get any work done.

***Because it’s made of cheese.