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.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Helstock – The Cover Years

As is traditional at this time of the year, heralds were despatched, proclamations issued and gold-embossed invitations circulated for the annual Helstock Festival, a bijou assembly convened each March to celebrate the anniversary of the birth of Songs from The Blue House chanteuse La Mulley. An occasion to gather, play songs, celebrate, and generally drink as much Brewers Gold as humanly possible while still being able to tell one end of an acoustic guitar from the other. 

Joining us this year were a stellar assembly of friends and relations who, to be fair, we usually refer to as ‘the usual suspects’ - my part-time combo Shagger, consisting of me and the wife, The Canyons, Helen’s brother and sister duo Giff and Moj (named in a moment of compering inspiration The Arctic Mulleys), wild card Paul Mosley, and raggle taggle bluegrass genii The Ragged String Band were assembled, given instructions on their duty to perform a prescribed cover version and handed over to the tender ministrations of perma-harassed sound man du jour James, who in another life is Our Glorious Leader.

We were denied the company of both Fiddly Richard and Turny Winn for various reasons and hence also denied the opportunity to air our well-rehearsed “Can you hear the banjo?” routine, but we did have the reassuring presence of Tony ‘TT’ Turrell which enabled us to include a couple of his recent co-writes in the brief set, and the mildly surprised percussionista Reado, who thought he’d just come out for a quiet drink, but who pursued his role with his characteristic taste and aplomb.

As with any bill that contains so many turns in a limited amount of time there was a fair bit of apologetic set trimming, the news being delivered by me in my de facto role as MC for the evening, but everyone took the cutting in good grace before delivering their sets in fine style.

The Canyons, especially, were on fine form during their nominated covers – a country honk reworking of Moses’ “But Anyway” rather nervously played out before it’s author and a frankly astonishing raga-inspired take on Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” being early highlights of their performance before they mustered a selection of originals from their new (and free giveaway CD – you don’t even have to buy a Sunday newspaper) and quite, quite brilliant self-titled album. 

The necessarily truncated Arctic Mulleys were measured and touching – an inspired “May You Never” being a highlight before Paul Mosley delivered half a dozen superb numbers of his own from behind the electric piano he’d lugged all the way up from Walthamstow on the train, and the evening was closed with a rip-roaring rollicking performance from The Ragged String Band, all close harmonies around a single mic, stand up bass, dobro and twin banjos. 

The entranced look on our host landlady Val’s face was a treat and a treasure, as was the impressive speed with which she conjured up a birthday cake, a baked potato and a Tupperware box of chilli for those who hadn’t had time, or had forgotten, to eat during the course of the evening’s festivities. There are no real funny stories about this night, no great truths revealed, no alarming behaviour, no dramatic incidence of idiocy to relate. Just a few girls and guys with acoustic guitars, telling stories.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

You Know That The Hypnotised Never Lie

An interesting diversion for The Picturehouse as we haul on board friend-of-the-band Mr. Tony 'TT' Turrell (no idea how he came by that nickname by the way, we must ask him one day...) on keyboards and head out for darkest Kelvedon to do two sets at the launch of Keith Farnish's "Time's Up", a book.
We were contracted to do two short sets - the first a 'negative' collection, which started out with The Clash's London Calling (if nothing else, they were wrong about one thing - the ice age, isn't coming - just see how quickly thinking on environmental matters has changed since 1979, but I digress) and the second a 'positive' set, the inclusion of TT allowing us to take on Don't Dream It's Over, which TT very creditably took over on lead vocals for. Before, between and after us there were a number of narrations from the text, however the potential incongruity of having loud rock music and quiet readings didn't really come into effect and a nice balance was maintained - a tribute no doubt to the meticulous planning which had gone into sorting out the running order beforehand - nothing to do with us, I must stress, wejust turned up and played the songs on the list we'd been supplied with. A splendid evening was had by all - there were nuts and cake, crisps and wine, beer and more beer, and Barry Trill stunned all of us (and not least himself, I imagine) with an astonishing take on Peter Gabriel's Here Comes The Flood accompanied only by our guest keyboard tickler. Having seen the bar raised such, Kilbey then manfully adopted the role of a full-tilt rock god for a rousing Won't Get Fooled Again during which Barry took over on bass, and there was much arch-backed mic swinging from our newly-liberated frontman. I contented myself with stomping around around in my big boots and turn ups channelling the spirit of seventies Pete Townsend. Windmilling may well have occurred at points during the performance. You just don't get this sort of thing with Guitar Hero.