Wednesday, December 11, 2013

"We'd like to do a song that's been...very kind to us..."

I get struck every so often by the thought that without that particular musical experience maybe I wouldn’t have made that left turn into balladry - perhaps I might have decided otherwise - perchance I might have got into drum n’ bass instead of picking up an acoustic guitar and trying to get people to clap at me in public while I sang at them about ex-girlfriends and imaginary slights. Sometimes it’s when I think about that Bob Dylan lyric someone pasted up on the sixth form common room notice board, obviously it happens whenever I hear a Neil Young song on the radio, definitely when Rory Gallagher’s Irish Tour movie makes it on to the late night schedule, occasionally even when I’m moved to slot that Uriah Heep compilation into the car stereo on long car journeys.  

It was probably Shev’s mention of the song he wrote for Amnesty International at last week’s Songwriter’s Night that prompted me to revisit probably the most influential album I remember from my teen years – the pair of sets of performances that seeded the idea that you could take things somewhere else. Nothing that my parents owned did the trick – I didn’t grow up listening to their Joni and Beatles albums (that came later) since they simply didn’t have any, although a bunch of singles by the likes of Elvis, Cliff and Bill Haley bequeathed by friends and neighbours must have sown some seeds. The compilation that put me on my path to a glittering career of general audience indifference woven inextricably with occasional personal triumphs were those provided by The Secret Policeman’s Balls of 1979 and 1981.

I was convinced that the performances I remember so fondly were of one year, but research tells me otherwise, nevertheless they seeped into my impressionable sponge of a teenaged mind and sat there, waiting for their moment(s) to spring forth in inspiration. That Pete Townsend could strip down Won’t Get Fooled Again, drag classical guitarist John Williams into the mix and spit out a particularly, seemingly ad-libbed and venomous “Do ya?!” is, pleasingly, as grainy on Youtube as it is in my memory. I didn't know you could just call up people with no prior relationship with your material and just get them to come along and do something like that (and one day, all of our memories will be in black and white). Similarly, that the brittle chopped chords of The Police’s Roxanne could be broken down into a chorus pedalled melancholy reflection was a revelation. I didn’t know you were allowed to leave out the bass and drums and do that. Although it was pretty much a solo effort anyway, I Don’t Like Mondays gained a whole lot more from being stripped of its orchestral cladding and Tom Robinson’s Glad To Be Gay made me think that if you had an acoustic guitar it meant that you really were a protest singer. If only I’d thought to write that down at the time.

Aside from those, the most affecting performance in the film and on the album came from the most unlikely source. These days Phil Collins is slighted principally as the all-overpowering eighties behemoth that ate Genesis but back then he was an unlikely piano player who’d tentatively released a solo album (after the other two, Rutherford and Banks, had already dipped their toes in the stream) and made his first solo live performance at the ball performing a couple of songs from Face Value, one of which was a tremendously moving character-driven ballad on which he got a former member of Jean-Luc Ponty’s band to accompany him on the banjo.  

It all sinks in.

Monday, December 09, 2013

"...apart from that, we've had a lovely evening".

Sometime in the last century my friend Tony - recently returned to the wilds of Suffolk from out of That There London - mentioned that he was thinking of starting a Songwriters’ Night at a local pub and asked if I would come along to support the venture by performing, at least until it picked up enough momentum to sustain itself and we could stop playing our songs at each other. An unsuitable venue was procured in that it had the disadvantage of being the saloon bar of a local pub. This did at least mean that we weren’t going to be stuck away in a back room where no-one ventured and it also put the onus on the performers being good enough to entertain a live audience. It wasn’t exactly going to be a Friday Night Comedy Store bear pit, or as brutal as a late show at The Glasgow Empire, but you were definitely going to get some feedback on what the punters thought of your material nonetheless. Shev had also very cleverly negotiated a deal whereby performers, at least once they’d taken the stage for at least one number, got to drink for free (within reason, depending on the cognitive processes of whoever was behind the bar that evening, open mic nights being a notoriously under-desired shift among the bar keeping community).
It built very well, as it happens – we got some great buy-in from our hosts which made running the show a whole lot easier and when landlord Ady constructed an elaborate stage prop to coincide with Shev’s traditional set-closer Robert the Bunny one night it very nearly brought the house down. On any given evening there would be the usual suspects – a nervous singer-songwriter emboldened by her peers and channeling her parents’ collection of Joni Mitchell albums (this was pre-Kate Nash, so the accents tended to be more Saskatchewan via Topanga Canyon than Camden mockney in the main), a keyboard player embellishing his bedsit-logue with some jazzy motifs, a country band slumming it for the free booze, some guy who could afford a Gibson-Martin-Fender on which to frame his rudimentary barre chords with a spidery strum, and usually a bloke who’d brought his own tightly-bound sheaves of lyrics and was aggrieved to find that we didn’t have a music stand on which to mount it (we refused on principle). Okay, maybe it got a bit cliquey at times, but folk were generally respectful enough not to talk through the work in progress, a few people were encouraged in their endeavours and relationships and friendships were forged, many of which last to this day.
Statler and I went down to the latest incarnation of the evening last week with The Charming and Fragrant Helen Mulley, with whom we’d worked up a couple of things in the collaborative spirit of the olden times. Back then we used to write a song a month to the deadline of having something new to perform, this time round we’d tweaked a couple of things we already had lying around. The spirit of the occasion was quite similar to the feel of old, even if we’d picked the evening when the banks of the nearby River Orwell were forecast to burst and engulf the venue, and so attendance was a little chary. What the hell, that at least meant that we got two goes each and I even fulfilled a request from the floor (“…if I could do most of the requests I get I’d be in a circus”). It wasn’t until the end of the night when a rambling series of jazz chords presaged a heretical version of Sweet Home Alabama that attentions wandered and smartphones were consulted. One of my companions gestured toward the illuminated screen hidden below table level. “Nelson Mandela has died” it said.      

Sunday, December 01, 2013

"...and get your bloody feet off the sofa"

 You know how those last three or four blogs went on about such seemingly disparate matters as drum damping, song writing, Kickstarter projects and, um...that other one - probably about biscuits or how the eighties were better or something, they usually are. Well, in a plot arc worthy of Russell T. Davies at his most baffling, as it turns out it's sort of all really been leading to this post. Here is a video of Songs from the Blue House performing a song called Not That Kind of Girl, which a nice man called Darran asked us to do before he'd give us any money for our last album. It was performed completely live out at The Recording Booth, and then Anthony James Shevlin moved the camera around a bit, made us do it again and then mixed the bits together. 
 Speaking of songwriting, Helen sings "White gold anklets", not "...ants" or "...antlers" in the line after "You can build me bridges", although the latter would have made a nice ad-lib if we were doing a gig over christmas anywhere. It'll make sense when you hear it.

Enjoy, contemplate, share. It's as much a mantra as anyone else lives by. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

“I don’t know who you are but you’re a real dead ringer for a post-feminist dialectic critique on the traditional gender-based mores of the patriarchy...”

Humming a happy tune in my head the other day as I do sometimes (it helps block out the voices) I found myself segueing effortlessly betwixt SftBH’s Not That Kind of Girl (originally from the album Too) and a tune by my old chum Tony James Shevlin entitled Would I Lie? What they have in common, beyond the key of E, a shuffly boogie back beat and an extraordinarily catchy hook each is that they deal with the thorny subject of embarking upon intrapersonal relationships. In short, they’re both about trying to pull.
My input on the former was that I made up the words and music out of my own head and then sent a version of it to The Fragrant and Charming Helen Mulley for approval and re-drafting as she was clearly going to have to take responsibility for delivering the polemic in song and since the phrase check your privilege hadn’t been invented at the time I thought it best to cede final edit on the lyric. She responded to by adding a whole extra verse just in case there remained any misunderstanding regarding the intent and also took out the line about being given “a damned good thrashing” which seemed fair enough, Portman Road seemingly being enough in the media spotlight at the time.

The revisions clarified our point, and we proceeded to rehearse, record and gig our new song whereupon it became one of our most popular numbers (a recent review of the live album mentioned it glowingly) to the point where when we were raising money through Kickstarter in order to cover the costs of pressing, dressing and posting the CD someone had requested that we video a unique version of it dedicated to them, which is why I’d ended up back in a studio with Shev in the first place, he being the director entrusted with recording the event for post-editry.

“Well” I thought to myself “There’s no point just wondering about it” and so I asked both Helen and Shev whether they’d consider getting together in order to see whether we could make a call-and-response combined version of the two songs and maybe go out and sing it at people if it went well, a suggestion which they both regarded with commendable equanimity, which is how we found ourselves working through an acoustic mash-up in Tony’s music room trying to ensure that no-one got the definitive last word and attempting to keep a lid on the raw smouldering intertextuality steaming up the windows.
Then, of course, we had to run through another couple of songs (that thing where a musician rocks up at the venue, bounds on stage, rips through one number to the enthusiastic screams of the audience and then disappears into the night with an inappropriately dressed girl on the back of his motorcycle happens remarkably rarely outside of the movie Purple Rain and besides there were three if us, so we’d need a sidecar at least if we were going to try to pull it off) so we chose Elephant, which Helen and I had played at last year’s Helstock (with Mr Wendell) and which I fondly like to imagine is the sort of thing The Indigo Girls might have released if they’d been produced by Clive Gregson. I also picked out one of my Shevlin favourites from the olden days of Suffolk Songwriters’ (he used to play to me, I used to play to him…) to complete the small-but-perfectly-formed set.

In response he started playing something that I was sure I recognised and that my hands seemed to be able to form the chords to through some sort of auto-folk memory. I even managed some harmonies on the chorus. “Where do I know that from?” I wondered aloud at its conclusion. “You remember” he replied “We played it once…at a party…in 1998”.       

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

"'s his brother, Alan!" "Oh Yeah".

 Back in the day(tm) we raised awareness and funds for causes close to our hearts not by appearing on Newsnight but through the issuing of badges, fanzines, and cassette compilations. For a while in the eighties there was a thing called the Venue for Ipswich Campaign, or 'VIC'. One of the things that came of this was Ipswich Community Radio, which exists to this day, and another (indirectly) was the CSV centre which provided community-based services and rehearsal space. 

Through the consciousness-raising auspices of the committee there also came about numerous gigs (I think it was The Charlatans who redecorated the dressing room at The Caribbean Club with pizza) by which means I got to play in a band supporting Carter USM, which I never fail to mention every time 'Sheriff Fatman' comes on 6 Music. I also appeared on one of these tapes (in two different guises) alongside many of the Ipperati of the day, many of whom had been recorded by one James Partridge with his Tascam four track facility, popularly known as 'The Portaloo'.

For some reason I was humming one of the songs from the collection today - not As Is's "The Big Adventure", not This Side of Summer's "Hole In My Life", not even my "Showtime" but ‘Alan Peel’ by Edible Vomit - sing along if you know the chorus!

Subsequent online research reveals that Edible Vomit gave their first gig to a little known Ipswich band at The Albion Mills, who went on to become Cradle of Filth. I mean, I don’t want to get all Only Connect about this, but it’s good to know we all helped out each other, whether we knew about it at the time or not.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

"A bit more duvet in the bass drum, please..."

 The history of the tea towel in rock occupies a sadly neglected nook in the overall pantheon of the fables of the deconstruction of pop history. Greil Marcus barely touches upon it, Johnny Rogan dismisses it in a paragraph, and only Donovan’s perpetual claim that he invented it on every BBC 4 documentary about the sixties that he can claw his way into briefly keeps the subject hovering athwart the listening public’s consciousness. 

 Like most people, I first became aware of the phenomenon when watching footage of the legendary rooftop concert performed by The Beatles during the sessions for what eventually became Let It Be. Most people can’t get past the horrific plastic mac Ringo is sporting (possibly one of Maureen’s) but once can tear your eyes away it is clear that he has customised his drum kit by carefully placing a tea towel over firstly the floor tom and then the snare. Before the invention of those little gummy blue pads that you can now attach to your drum heads and in the absence of the gaffa tape first introduced to Liverpool by merchant seamen in the thirties (and then eagerly swapped like gum, chocolates and silk stockings with GIs during the war by impressionable young percussionists throughout the home counties) this was the only way to damp down an overly timbalesque snare. With the experience of unsuccessfully trying to record the drum part for Tomorrow Never Knows while the kit was set up in the revolving door at the EMI offices in Manchester Square (John Lennon apparently wanted it to sound like “…a thousand Tibetan monks all paradiddling on temple drums at once”) still fresh in his mind Ringo would have been careful not to draw any attention to issues with recording the kit, and it is also enchanting to think of him absent-mindedly reading a humorous summary of the laws of cricket, or looking at Giles Martin’s and classmates’ handprints, or perhaps reflecting on some mawkish poetry about a mother’s love whilst shuffling his way through Get Back.

 Ringo was not alone in his pursuit of sonic experimentation. Across town Dave Mattacks, newly installed as drummer of incipient folk rockers Fairport Convention was struggling to reproduce the loose sound of Levon Helm’s kit as heard on The Band’s Music from Big Pink. “We ended up draping a tea towel across the snare to mute it – give it that subdued basement feel” he told Patrick Humphries some years later in a conversation recounted in the Fairport biography Meet by the Fridge

 Sometimes the old ways are the best. Only last week I myself was involved in recording an acoustic session wherein le batterie, even lovingly attended to with brushes by our sensitive and attentive percussionist, was overwhelming the delicate nuance of the banjo accompaniment. With a knowing sideways glance and a nod to the long and noble tradition of thinking outside the box our drummer rushed to the kitchen, returning with a lovingly wefted little Fairtrade cotton number which he draped over the snare in order to dampen down the intrusive rattle.

 It turns out than in these days of electronic gizmos and digitally-manipulated sound technology, where decades of improvisation and recording expertise and moving the mics and damping the room and tweaking the EQs have been reduced to bits and VDUs, you can now just buy a plug-in.       

Friday, October 11, 2013

I'm not in love...

I gave up all this malarkey once, y'know. I thought, "Well, that's it. I've had a good run, I've made people laugh, I've made them cry, I've stood on stage in Blues Brothers shades and a flouncy scarf, I've won a trophy - maybe it's time to move over just in time for some kid from Framlingham to take over and take on the world. But before I go..." 

All of this is true.

Before I went, I thought I should record some songs for posterity. Just pretty basic things - I gave Gibbon a CD of Clive Gregson's Strange Persuasions and told him that I wanted it to sound like that. He had a portastudio and a drum machine and a bass so it seemed like a pretty simple plan. Of course it didn't turn out anything like that. 

We did a few things late at night and quietly. We booked a live room for a day. My friend Ross could sing and was willing to get the train up from London for an afternoon. Wendell couldn't really shred but he had a twelve-string Rickenbacker and so I got him to play a solo (the last time I'd done that I'd asked him to try and make it sound like "...a musical box running out of wind on a playground situated in the midst of a post-nuclear wasteland", so I knew he'd be up for something as simple as "I want you to tell me how much you love this person with as few notes as possible").

We later re-recorded this song properly for SftBH III - without drums but with proper keyboards, a fiddle player and a pedal steel. TT (who did some truly lovely work on string parts and piano) always giggled at "This could be the pesticide" and "cokehead" in the lyrics. For the record, it's "Best aside" and "Coquette", but, y'know, whatever works for you is fine by me. While I was clearing some stuff up in the kitchen earlier today Mrs Skirky's iPod happened to be on her favourites list and it came on. 

Here it is.

Friday, October 04, 2013

"It Breaks My Heart..."

I am in receipt of a slew of mails and tweets from The New Wolsey Theatre regarding their revival of the so-called ‘jukebox musical’ Our House, which takes the back catalogue of eighties pop funstrels Madness* as a starting point and then weaves a compelling narrative throughout in order to produce a compelling, evocative and fun evening out for all the family. Or, if you’re Ben Elton, involves you dashing off a bewildering load of old tosh on the back of a fag packet in crayon before trousering eye-watering amounts of cash and hanging out at parties with Robert De Niro.
This minds me to recall my own time in musical theatre, playing the part of Hank Jr. Jr. in the stage production of The Perfectly Good Guitars, which played at The New Wolsey, at Ipswich Music Day and the Place des Héros in Arras as part of a cultural exchange. The narrative explored the story of what was originally the Guitare family and followed their fortunes throughout generations of Guitars as they journeyed from their original home in France to Nova Scotia, Maine and finally Louisiana, each new step of the journey prompted by the then-current patriarch of the family becoming involved in an unfortunate “…bit of trouble with a local girl”.
In reality this was simply a scheme cooked up between myself and one Tony James Shevlin after some time idly speculating whether we should form a band simply for the express purpose of being able to put every guitar we owned on stage at the same time – I only had the four to bring to the party but he had half a dozen at least and was able to throw in a couple of basses for good measure. After we’d come up with the name, Shev fleshed out the concept and made a few calls until we had a cast of actor/musicians – Wendell G, TT, Billy-Bob, and the Mandolin sisters (and cousins) Ophelia and Emmylou – with small back stories which meant that we could drop a bunch of our favourite bits of Americana into the mix and have a ball at the same time. 
Once we had arranged the set list we allocated showcase numbers to each of the group so that numbers like Steve Earle’s Only When I’m Blue, Tompall Glaser’s Streets of Baltimore, Love Hurts, and Bruce Springsteen’s From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come) fitted snugly into the narrative, each monologue ending with a resigned “…with a local girl” before we kicked into the song proper. It was the latter which gave us the biggest surprise at our first rehearsal when Tony ‘TT’ Turrell, (operating under his regular nickname) burst note-perfect into the rollicking key-change boogie woogie piano solo which closes Dave Edmunds’ version and which we’d previously agreed might be a bit much to drop into someone’s lap given the deadline we were operating under, which was to get the show on at The Wolsey as part of the Ip Art festival that year. After that we all upped our game a bit.
Shev based the show around the concept that we as a group had come to Ipswich to see where Daddy was stationed during the war (he’d been asked to leave after a bit of trouble with…well, you get the picture**) which we affected to be mightily impressed by. He wrote lines based around the gifted happenstance that a few town centre buildings had been recently converted into licensed premises (“They had a theatre, and they turned it into a bar….even the job centre is now a pub!”) and that “They even have a Route 66!” “It’s a bus route Wendell – it goes to Martlesham…”
By making it a show rather than a gig we managed to fill most of the venue on the night and many happy theatre-goers congratulated us on our American accents in the bar afterward – a couple even going so far as to ask us how long we were over for. The trip to France may have slightly confused the non-Anglophone audience, not least because many of the line up were also playing gigs with their regular bands at the same festival (“Eet is ze same singer as yesterday…but zis time ‘e ‘as got a ‘at!”) but probably the finest compliment to our thespian integrity came when we performed at Ipswich Music Day. As we compared notes in The Milestone - about five minutes walk away from the park down the hill - afterwards (“A triumph darling – you were wonderful! Mwah! Mwah!”) the landlord approached us with a mischievous grin playing about his features. “I had one of the people who saw your act in here earlier” he twinkled. “Saw the first two numbers, stomped out of the park, down here, ordered a pint and addressed us all in part and no-one in particular. ‘I can’t stand those fucking Yanks’ he said”.

*Other descriptions are available. 
**Allegedly based on why Geno Washington skipped town. Possibly. Yes, that one.

Monday, September 23, 2013

“He asked to see my door, but I wouldn't show it to him…”

I am pleased to announce that after a long period of simply going up to people and asking if I can play at their pub, showcase, campfire, party and/or Christening, I now have representation.  Henceforth my musical affairs will be handled by James at Blue House Music, who has offered very reasonable terms under which, basing a projection of next year’s earnings on my turnover for the fiscal year to date, he already owes me thirty five quid.
Obviously we haven’t actually signed anything legally binding as we’re not the sort of people who rely on such things, preferring as we do a manly handshake, an almost imperceptible inclination of the head and a knowing tap of the nose. We had a pretty similar arrangement with High Barn Records around the time of the release of Songs from The Blue House’s album Tree, when we were advised that they would rather not be involved with the sort of people who insisted on ephemera like contracts. Nevertheless they got us on to Amazon, iTunes, the HMV website and into a movie soundtrack and so in the long term I’m not complaining that I haven’t been able to research my royalty rate at Companies House, and the £4.86 I got from the PRS came in pretty handy that time I was on my way to Subway and was out of loose change.
I’m no stranger to contractual wrangles, of course. My nascent career with Heavy Big Popsters As Is didn’t necessarily founder on our insistence on haggling with a big-shot American agent over a clause regarding image rights, but it didn’t seem to help seal the deal at all. I guess when your day job had been producing Winkler-centric sitcom Happy Days, dealing with the contractual minutæ raised by a bunch of mulletheads over in Blighty must have seemed like pretty small potatoes by comparison. Our heroic manager, who’d secured the offer in the first place, was informed in fairly short order that we’d better sign up as it stood or forget it, and consign our chances of getting our leather jackets placed in The Smithsonian* to the trash. And he'd had to pay a lawyer to explain what image rights were in the first place.
In the end, aside from the legalities which bound us to our manager (and he to us) one contract I did manage to sign during my time in the self-professed purveyors of Loud Love Songs was for the publishing rights for a single song in the territories of French-speaking Benelux and Switzerland, which sounds like a pretty market-specific sort of deal until you realise that these were the only parts of Europe a friend of his who'd agreed to drop off some copies of our single at whatever radio stations he passed during the course of the trip was going to be visiting. I’m not sure we had that much of an impact on the Swiss charts at the time, and I’m certainly not aware of any residual royalties having built up over the intervening years but of course if you’d like me to come to your pub/showcase night/campfire/party/Christening  and play “(I Want to) Move (In With You)” – double parentheses please – then I’d be only too pleased to.
Speak to my agent.
*The original jacket worn by The Fonz in the TV series is now in a museum.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

“My hand to God, she's gonna be at Carnegie Hall. But you - I'll let you have her now at the old price, OK?

Word reaches me (over a nice Marlborough Sauvignon blanc in my back garden actually) that Our Glorious Leader has expanded his portfolio of obligation into the Agency business. In short, as well as booking turns into his own evenings, arranging intimate soirees live in The Oak Room at The Sun in Dedham, doing sound at Little Rabbit Barn and popping the odd passing singer-songwriter into a bistro in Coggeshall on the off-chance of a hat tip and a plate of free hors d’oeuvres, he is adopting a stable of thoroughbred performers of Top Quality Americana and Modern Folk and trying to persuade other people to book them too. I think I’ve got that right. It sounds like an awful lot of hard work to me - sort of like an A&R role, but without the mounds of cocaine and lavish after-BRITs parties.
When bands get bored with each other, the set list, the venues they’re playing on a Sisyphean loop or even the charm of the miss-teatime-get-back-late-eat-a-Ginsters-on-the-way-home lifestyle, or they simply outgrow the childish things that first led them into being in a band in the first place (like the chance to miss tea, stay up late and eat Ginsters on the way home, ironically) it’s often the singer who diversifies into alternate arenas of expression first. Since drummers spend a lot of awful time hitting things and adjusting cymbal stands prior to gigs, guitarists like to warm up by playing all the licks they’re not allowed to include in the set proper and bass players can’t usually be trusted with electricity, singers also tend to know which end to plug in the microphones, which gives them an extra edge in the utility stakes après group hiatus. A friend of mine ended up doing the sound for a Saturday morning kids TV pop show from just such a career start point (learning in the process just how high the number of incidences of sore throats occurring between Friday’s rehearsal and Saturday’s broadcast can be, which is why for all his faults I retain a soft spot for Housewives Mum’s favourite Ronan Keating, who makes a point of delivering the goods live every time).

Frequently it’s their PA anyway, since they’ve grown tired of flirting with acute pharyngitis by trying to make themselves heard over the throaty roar of the guitarist’s backline and they’ve bought some decent gear to replace the cobbled-together collection of stands and wedges that have accumulated over time. They also tend to build up an informal network of people who similarly need such a capability but who gig so infrequently that it’s not worth them buying their own. They sometimes flirt with them, too. After that it's all “Are there any other good places to play around here?” or simply “Are there any places to play around here?” and the mid set “You should learn…” turns into the after show “You should book…” and before you know it you’re paying the hire fee on a church hall out of your own pocket, panicking about the late walk-up, trying to find the one duff channel on the multicore which has wiped out the stereo monitor feed, isolating the earth buzz that’s threatening to derail the whole sound check and wondering where on earth you’re going to get quail’s eggs for Boo Hewerdine’s backstage rider.
There’s also a down side.

By the way, you can see what he’s up to at

Monday, September 02, 2013

I Don't Get Around Much Any More

I received a telephone call from Our Glorious Leader on Saturday, welcome not least because any call from him usually presages larks and adventures to some degree, but especially on this occasion because it turned out that he had about a hundred CDs for me to sign as part of the successful Kickstarter-led release of the fifth Songs from The Blue House album, ‘Live’. We had always intended the fifth of our releases to be recorded in front of an audience as this would mean that we could give it a suitably packaged title to follow our sophomore* effort Too, which was in turn followed by Tree and then IV. At one point we discussed presenting the CD in a small fruit container to emphasise that the title was a small play on words, or ‘punnet’. Why my career in marketing hasn’t blazed like a comet across the firmament is a mystery to me, it really is.  
I listened to it in the car this morning, and it really is a thing of wonder. I’m as much a fan of the band as I am a member and although I’m not suggesting this is our Rock of Ages (the last time we made a reference to The Band a kindly reviewer helpfully pointed out that we were ‘deluded’) there are real moments of clarity when the realisation that we didn’t just write these songs, but that we lived them cuts like a knife. Breaking These Rocks is a genuine commentary on (then) current affairs which goes where hard science can’t, Song V is a true story set in root-fifth Cinemascope, counterpart Song III is a three act Linklater screenplay performed in four and a half minutes. Of course there is shade at the heart of the performance in that although we’re not quite at the stage of being "Hilton Valentine’s Animals", over the course of a decade there will inevitably be some comings and goings – of the original line up Jimmy quit for one, and then Jody got married – and that the performance we recorded was actually the launch gig for our previous album gives some clue as to the recent slackening off in our work rate.
As fascinating to me as its parent album is the associated outtakes and rarities collection** put together as one of the packages we hoped to entice our online benefactors with. There is our very first demo version of Bike – sounding pretty much the same as the version that kicks off the live album. There’s the version of Fairport Convention’s Rosie which we put together for Ces, that brace of psych-folk Beatles reworkings, Gibbon’s close harmony-led gospel version of When God Created Angels, the instrumental from our Steely Dan period that we never got round to finding lyrics for, the one that, conversely, we had two fully formed sets of words to decide between, the Judas Priest cover.
As I say, we didn’t just record this music, we lived it, and there’s a side to me which is gets more melancholy by each day that it looks increasingly like we won’t be living it again any time soon. Mind you, one guy did pick up the House Concert option on Kickstarter. He’s asked if we can do it at his place in the South of France…                      
You can find our music at  
*Annoying, isn’t it?
**I’m fully aware that in terms of our commercial profile, pretty much everything we’ve ever released is a rarity.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Songs from The Blue House 'Live' out 26/8/13

You know what it’s like at parties. Some people pop their heads round the door just to be polite and say hello before moving on to another engagement, some arrive fashionably late, flirt outrageously with the other guests and depart leaving cigarette burns in the carpet that you don’t spot until three weeks later. A few turn up uninvited, stash their booze in the washing machine and then stay up all night talking until the only things left to drink are those brightly-coloured bottles you got in for that fancy-dress themed cocktail party a couple of years ago. Some people you get introduced to for the first time in the queue for the bathroom and hit it off so well that you wonder why you haven’t already been best friends for years. The Blue House party has been going on for a decade now, so it is time to thank everyone who RSVP’d the invite, brought a bottle, made a dessert or just popped in for a time while they waited for a cab. We are Songs from The Blue House, and this is what we do.   

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

"From Finborough to Fingringhoe..."

It’s tempting, I know, to consider me sitting back in my leather-bound armchair, puffing contentedly on a pipe and taking the occasional quaff on a stiff scotch as I dictate my memoir to a liveried flunky who then goes off to the British Library and uploads my latest reminiscence to an eager waiting public. Something about how the toilets in the Newt and Cucumber had a great reverb, or that bar whose gimmick was that all the tables had telephones on them, and the time that someone called the one nearest the stage to ask us to turn it down a bit as they couldn’t carry on their conversation without shouting, that sort of thing. Enquiring minds need to know - in fact only the other day I was parking the car when a gentleman stopped me to enquire whether I still get out and play and what the rest of The Star Club were up to. I informed him that our front man Shev was still writing and performing with his new band. “Ah” he shook his head wearily “But it’s not The Beatles, is it?”
I bumped into Frisky Pat, a drummer friend of mine the other day (at a child’s birthday party, where our respective scions were eating crisps and hitting each other with balloons – not unfamiliar behaviour from our time on the road together, as it happens) and talk got around to how the idea of being in a band is great, whereas the practicalities of missing tea and getting home at four in the morning so that a drunk person can shout “Sex on Fire!” at you repeatedly in between times for three hours gets a trifle wearing after a certain number of repetitions.
Nevertheless, I think it’s important to at least maintain the semblance of being in a band, even if that just means doing the occasional bit of writing and demoing at home just to keep your hand in, and so last week I foreswore the opportunity to go out and watch some of my friends playing music in order to stay in and make some of my own. Besides, once I start shouting for Kings of Leon songs after my third pint I tend to get on their nerves.

I had a simple little song which had previously been demoed and performed acoustically a couple of times, but I also had great dreams of swirling cinematic soundscapes of the sort McAlmont and Butler might hire Abbey Road to produce, or that Tom Scholz might dream up in his basement. I also had a nice bottle of Rioja, the riff from Love Will Tear Us Apart and a lyric which contained both the place name Fingringhoe and employed the term allopatric to describe a relationship. Here’s what happened...…

So, having clocked in, I feel I have re-established my still-a-musician time-served credentials and can now get on with the business at hand. Perkins, plump up the cushions, bring me a fresh glass and let me tell you about the time one of our audience cornered my wife at a gig at The Manor Ballroom to ask if our first child would be named ‘John’ or ‘Paul’…      


Thursday, July 25, 2013

Customers who bought this title also bought...

I did an interview over the phone a little while ago, which was quite the event for me, having not done one for many years. I think the last time before this was probably when a local fanzine - named Tiger Rag, I believe - took the trouble to invite me out for coffee and utilised the power of technology in the form of one of those new-fangled Walkmen (Walkmans?) in order to record my sage utterances for posterity. As it turned out either the batteries weren't up to it or the hubbub of the Took's Bakery & Cafe overtook the moment and my hapless interviewer had to ring me a few days later to see if I could remember anything I'd said, which I couldn't. I did mention that I'd been terribly earnest and was probably wearing an army surplus jacket.
This time around I was asked if and when it would be convenient to call me at home and was able to properly prepare myself with a pre-arranged list of questions, the answers to which were to be lovingly compiled and included in a book called The Semi-Pro Sixties. I've not read it myself, since the author declined to provide any of us interviewees with a free copy on the grounds that he was a bit skint having gone to all the trouble of getting the thing properly bound and published, but it has garnered a number of excellent reviews both on Amazon and the Waterstones sites, so it clearly turned out to be very good in the end. Obviously when I say 'a number' I mean they pretty much look like the same reviews in both places, but five stars is five stars, whatever their provenance.
David, the author, was kind enough to email me my bits to proof read, and I found his transcript of our conversation the other day. So in case you haven't got £11.99 to spare, let me guide you through some of the highlights contained within... 
Early influences
Shane Kirk; “We had a Dansette record player and we got given some records by a neighbour. There were records by Elvis, Cliff Richard and even Frankie Vaughan.”
Absolutely true, despite me being born in 1964. I am of the generation whose first frisson of excitement over an album sleeve came not while concentrating really hard (as it were) on Debbie Harry's dress on the front of Parallel Lines, but by looking through the extensive packaging of the South Pacific soundtrack. I also owned Bill Haley's Rock Around The Clock EP and Frank Sinatra's version of Chicago (My Home Town) on 78. Still my favourite from this era is the timeless version of Wilhemina (is Plump and Round) which may be the first song I ever learned all the way through.    
Shane Kirk; “We’d hired this van to go to a gig on New Years Eve. It wasn’t from a very reputable company and we soon found out it didn’t have working wipers or washers. It started to snow and one of the band had to lean out of the window spraying water onto the windscreen in front of me so I could see where I was going.”
Obviously if you're in a van which is hurtling up the A14 and it's snowing you don't want to be the one hanging out of the window trying to splash water (which will then freeze into a fine, opaque layer) over the windscreen. Driving wasn't much more fun.  
Embarrassing Situations
Shane Kirk; “We were booked to play in a huge club in Oxford. I’d written all the songs for the band and we were looking forward to the gig. We arrived and set up. There were loads of bar staff and several doormen all prepared for a busy night. Unfortunately nobody showed up, nobody at all. The Manager eventually told us to forget it, so we packed the gear away in the van ready to drive back home. We were just about to drive off when the Manager came out and paid us the full fee. Fair play to him.”
I still carry with me the look of despair on the club manager's face as we rolled round yet another few bars of the false ending of what turned out to be our closing number. He approached the stage, we carried on playing, he backed away, we built to a faux-climax, he approached again, we carried on playing...
Dangerous Situations
Shane Kirk; “We were doing a few gigs as a 'Beatles specialist' band and got booked into a rather rough type pub on an estate somewhere in Essex. After a rather nervous couple of sets and a few complaints about the noise we got re-booked with the proviso that we did an 'unplugged' type set. We weren't confident about the wisdom of this, but were assured that this was exactly what would be a winner with the clientele. Upon our return the landlord had gone on holiday and left his son in charge, who clearly did not quite have the gravitas and, frankly, bull neck to keep his regulars house trained, with the result that a few of them had basically gone feral and taken the place over - hence whatever casual passing trade there was had deserted the place until it was safe to return. It was a long and extremely lonely evening and at some point the toilets got smashed up - possibly after one fellow tried to join in by singing "Yesterday" and insisted rather forcefully that I was "...playing it wrong" for the sole purpose of making him look stupid. We tried to lighten the atmosphere at one point by explaining away the semi-acoustic nature of the gig by saying that the drummer had forgotten to pack his kit. Tumbleweedery ensued.
The postscript to this is that when the real landlord returned from holiday he angrily rang us up, outraged that we'd been so unprofessional as to forget to bring drums, said that we were the worst band he'd ever had to deal with and suggested that we might like to come back and do a free gig in order to make it up to him. 

Best Remembered Gigs
Shane Kirk; “We played at the British Legion Club in Felixstowe. I remember it well because the support band’s guitarist wore a kilt. When we finished playing at the end of the night, the audience called out for the support band to do an encore rather than us. It was a bit deflating.”

"They were still booing them when we came on..."

Monday, July 08, 2013

“Ted Bidits!”

Another year, another Maverick. From the Stygian gloom of the original Barn Stage, where we had to brush the cobwebs from our hair, shake them loose and let them fall before starting our set to the bright new world of queue-less bars and brightly-painted drag acts, what a long strange trip it’s been over the six years of the festival’s existence.

From such humble beginnings I have at least attended, if not played, every year since the festival's inception; nevertheless it was with no little trepidation that I found myself with a clipboard, a wristband and the title of Stage Manager at this year’s event, charged with the holy mission of administering the smooth running of The Barn Stage, the myriad duties of which included ensuring that those with camping chairs stayed exclusively on the left-hand side of the central divide. This, I’ll state for the record now, was the most stressful part of the weekend. I’ve been heckled on stage before, but never during someone else’s set and by someone waving a banjo and gesturing angrily at the space around their travel rug.
In practise my job, as I explained to the talent, was to introduce them at the start of their set, gesture at them to get off at the end, and repeat any requests addressed to me regarding technical matters in a slightly louder voice and at someone who actually knew what they were doing. As long as I held up my end of the bargain, I expected them to fulfil theirs. All of the line up turned out to be fantastically talented, most of them agreeably accepting of our extraordinarily tight ten minute turnarounds between acts, and a few of them so selflessly accommodating that I found myself making a quiet note to send them flowers.

I think we did pretty well – I mean we lost twenty minutes to a lengthy sound check on Saturday evening which we never made back, but taking the compression off the bass, losing the gate on the vocals and poking up the mids at 160hZ is going to take time, there’s no disputing that, and if you want to get it right you want to get it right. A similar principle was behind my checking the name of The Goat Roper Rodeo Band four times to ensure I didn’t get any of it in the wrong order. Obviously ideally I wouldn’t have been introducing them on stage at the time, but we got through it.
It would be unfair to single out anyone’s performance on stage, but off it I certainly developed a soft spot for Eileen Rose (“How do you want me to signal that time’s nearly up for the set?” “A bunch of flowers?”) Trevor Moss (“If we dropped a number from the set that’d give you a chance to make some time up, yeah?”) and Hannah Lou (“It’s from Debenhams”) and the extraordinarily delightful Rainbow Girls, who patiently drew me a stage plan helpfully indicating where the tap board should be miked up, and when asked if they needed anything, asked simply for a higher drum stool and wondered if they might have kittens delivered to the backstage area.

At one point I found myself guiding the perfectly gentlemanly Neil Innes from Artist’s Reception to the backstage area. “What do you call a banjo at the bottom of the ocean?” he asked.
“A start”.