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For many, many years folk have disagreed with each
other about when music finally went wrong.
When skiffle first came out of the coffee bars, electrified itself and started
hanging out in smoky clubs and beat-group cellars there were furious letters to
The Jazz, Ragtime and Blue Note Gazette fulminating against the beatniks’ employment
of massive fifteen watt electric amplifiers and wanton use of the spurious
bongo*. Some say (to paraphrase Douglas Adams) that coming in out of the fields
was a bad idea in the first place - indeed Samuel Pepys makes reference in his
diary for September the 2nd 1666 to ‘…an unholy rackette caused bye
the minstrelry of severalle unkempt youths who did so sully the middle eight of
‘Merry Down, Dilly Down, Alle the Longe Daye’ with their raucous assaulte upon
thee mandoline that I was barelye able to sit through the succeeding version of
‘Wonderwalle’ without recourse to blockinge of mine ears. At climaxe of thee
performance, during ‘My Lady Thy Displayeth the Attributes of Ye Vixen’ saide youths
perforce did set their lutes aflayme!’ Pepys did not return to an open session
ever again, and the fate of the Pudding Lane Folk, Jazz and Blues Club remains
There is a whiff of irony that these days the largest
celebrations of the people’s music are once again held in the rolling fields and
meadows where our forebears once sang lustily of feasting and wenching whilst
gazing enviously at the Manor House to whose plumped and primped luxuriance
they could only aspire. Or Download,
as it is known these days and so it was with a pleasingly retrogressive air that
I pitched up at a local coffee house (one of the ones that apparently paid its
corporation tax, according to the charming barista of whom I enquired) in the
company of the Fragrant and Charming Helen Mulley, with whom I was to perform a
handful of songs at an acoustic showcase night** before we both pitched in with
Tony Shevlin, event curator and Master of Ceremonies on a few things from his
current Songs from The Last Chance Saloon album.
It was interesting to hang out and watch a few other
performers, which I do shamefully infrequently these days, to see which way the
wind is blowin’ in terms of what’s hot in the singer-songwriter scene. A few
years ago you couldn’t move for be-capo’d scallies in John Lennon caps, then there
was a wave of gamine faux-Cockneys slipstreaming Kate Nash. Last time I looked
it was all echo pedals and loops and I was wondering whether there would be a number
of Sheeran-lites in ginger wigs beat boxing and interspersing their plaintive
choruses with some of that rapping that they have now. You’ve seen them, down
the town hall, the rappers..? As it happened, there weren’t, but the current
thing seems to be tapping out a rhythm on your guitar’s body. There’s a lot of
it. It was two songs in before I stopped going to answer the door. “Do I have
to do that?” I asked Helen. “No, you don’t” she reassured me. “In fact, I’d
much rather you didn’t. If you ask me it’s this season’s Cajon”.
Helen and I were introduced as Songs from The Blue House which, strictly speaking, we and they were, although as she did her part I was
rather left to fill in the space formerly occupied by two guitars, a fiddle,
some keyboards, a banjo, a bit of pedal steel and a bass. Oh, and the other
three vocalists. In the circumstances I thought I did rather well. Certainly
well enough that we sold a couple of the CDs I’d stuffed into my bag before
leaving the house. (Note to SftBH ‘Too’ purchasers – Ophelia goes D – G – D – A
in that instrumental section, not D – A – D – D – A – G – G – D as performed on
the evening. Ahem).
Next up, TJS and The Chancers took to the cleared floor area in front of the disabled toilet, whereupon Helen stepped
up again to add some ethereal flute to Heart
and The High Moral Ground, we did a couple more and then finished up with
the album’s closer, Run Until We Drop
– a gorgeous big-screen chunk of Americana with a Sam Shepard script just
waiting to burst out of it. Hel’s sister Moj was taking photos – “Did you get
one of us?” I asked. “There’s one of you at the end” she replied “I’ll send it
to you”. There seemed to some confusion about one of the lyrics. “I’m afraid”
she continued “I will, from now on, always think of that song you did earlier about having expensive tastes as ‘Champagne Tits on a Lemonade Pay’”.
**Apparently there are a series of arcane but weapons-grade
conditions which delineate the Acoustic Showcase
from the Open Mic and, furthermore, from
the Come All Ye. I’m not sure where
the boundaries lie, but you don’t seem to get paid for any of them.
My grandparents went to Felixstowe on holiday. I've seen the photos, faded black and white echoes of an era of charabancs and bonnets. They may even have promenaded past Wallis Simpson, holed up on the East Coast, taking in the sea air whilst waiting for her divorce to be finalised at Ipswich Magistrates Court. I went there as a child many times - on one occasion, when I was not much older than my son is now, losing my parents by the pier and resolving to find them, as you do, with the impenetrable logic of simply walking to one end of the prom and then retracing my steps back again, and back again, and back, knowing that sooner or later I'd be bound to bump into them, which I eventually did. Naturally, just where I'd left them. I'm not sure how long it took me, but for them it must have seemed an awful lot longer.
Charlie Manning's was the epicentre of the Felixstowe holiday experience in the seventies - funfair, arcade and fish & chip dispensary all in one - soundtracked by Glam Rock and heady with the smell of hot dogs, fried onions and brylcreem. By the time I went to secondary school local folk were still calling it Butlin's, as the avuncular holiday camp magnate of that name had built the faux-art deco edifice in the thirties before surrendering it to the Manning family in 1946 after which they took the carousel, the ghost train, the cakewalk, the roller coaster and the hall of mirrors and created an empire of fun.
Tony James Shevlin called me last week and asked if I'd come along to provide support for his continuing attempt at world domination through the power of key change-friendly acoustic roots pop by playing guitar and singing on a number of songs he has just had released in the form of Songs from The Last Chance Saloon and, after checking the weather forecast, I said that I would be delighted to revisit an old stomping ground and so I duly packed the family and a guitar into the car and headed East.
The walls remain, but the interior of Manning's is very different today. Where you used to be able to get candy floss and a kiss me quick hat and still have change from a ha'penny and six before living out the fairground scene (in your head, at least) from Mary Poppins you can today get a replacement cover for your phone or a discounted tub of Febreze. A lone carousel pony, rampant like a riderless Milanese statue of Garibaldi, is mounted upon the Doric-supported canopy and watches forlornly over the market stalls, the second-hand book shop, the CD emporium and our home for the afternoon, Grandma's Porch where for some unfathomable reason some benighted soul has decided to put on Sunday afternoon music just next to the vintage guitar shop. Oh, did I not mention the vintage guitar shop? They have sofas, twin-necked six and twelve strings, pre-lawsuit Les Paul copies, a Hofner bass, a Rickenbacker copy and a four-string cigar box guitar which looks like it fell into a case of components and barely escaped with its tailpiece intact. It's awesome.
On this occasion it would be me, TJS and Jules-off-the-album spending some time together and while he and she do the heavy lifting, I bask in the June sunshine and fill in the gaps. I am terribly fortunate in that while Shev and Jules harmonise beautifully on vocals all I have to do is find something (a) within my range and (b) that doesn't spook the horses and it all sounds lovely and full. I get to riff a bit, pick a bit, arpeggiate even, and since we are blessed with the kind of sound guy who makes sure we can hear everything in the monitors and who rides the faders sensitively and with due care and attention* we can get on with the job in hand to the best of our abilities. Their consummate abilities mean that I get to reimagine myself once again in terms of great sidemen in the rock/folk/pop pantheon. On this occasion I am Simon Nicol in Hokey Pokey.
Early on Jules gets a burst of spontaneous applause for her vocal extrapolation in Faith in Myself, I manage to remember most of the licks which Tony has painstakingly tracked in the studio and which I'm now improvising on (at one point, when I've only just remembered to include one signature riff he sidles over and mutters "Nice you could join us" with an amused lift of the eyebrow). After too short a time, it's done, we're off, and I have to go and find my family, who have decamped to the beach.
As I walk past the dodgems, fresh fish and chips wafting on the sea breeze, they're still playing The Sweet's Blockbuster.
*It's a little thing, but someone who bothers to mute the faders so you can plug and unplug your guitar, points out the water bottles before you start and doesn't spend your set looking at his phone is likely to be on the receiving end of some effusive thanks, whether they like it or not.
While I'm here, many thanks to Gerry in the guitar shop, who lent me a shiny new G7 capo with nary a raised eyebrow regarding someone who would turn up at a gig without a vital piece of equipment. Reader, I bought it.