Monday, November 23, 2015

"I left my heart in Papworth General..."

“What’s the first rule of song writing?” asks La Mulley, stage front and centre, resplendent in frock coat and boots. Her rhetoric hangs heavy in the air. “No-one wants to hear about your kids” I respond. “And what’s the second rule?” I enquire by way of reply, thereby fulfilling my part in the pantomime. She leaves a beat. “Once you’ve had them, you can’t stop talking about them”.
We are on stage at Papworth Village Hall, a construction roughly comparable in dimension, design and acoustic qualities to St. Pancras Station, at the behest of charitable foundation Play Papworth and about to present Where We Are – one of a couple of numbers lifted wholesale from the repertoire of Songs from The Blue House and here presented with a degree of trepidation by scion combo Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogs. Our nervousness is not so much generated by the prospect of playing a rarely-performed obscurity from our back pages insomuch as that Tony Winn, whose part in the arrangement of the song is pivotal, had caught his tie in his concertina during sound check and we were concerned it might affect his performance if it happened again.
Of such concerns are the occasional musician’s contemplations made up  - others can be considered as such examples as “Whose turn is it to drive?”, “Do you mind if I come up a tad in the monitors?” and “So where shall we have dinner after the sound check?”

The answer to the latter question turned out to be the magnificently monikered Rocky’s Pavilion one of a number of choices afforded us, and which we approached despite the sage words of my good friend Neil, who once advised me never to sit down to eat in any establishment which is showing the football. Upon entry we were ushered to the restaurant area, which looked as if bedecked for a wedding, and where soft lighting subtly ebbed and flowed in both luminescence and hue. The haunting sound of Dido wafted atop the layer of kitchen mesosphere, and we felt ourselves nodding gently off as we surveyed our menu choices. To enliven ourselves we skipped across diverse conversational subjects – whether a Portobello Mushroom constitutes a vegetarian burger or if it is just simply a big mushroom in a bap, for instance. We considered what music we, or our partners, might have played at our funerals. “Mrs K. wants that Green Day one about having the time of your life at hers” I proffered. Good Riddance?” enquired bass player Ant. “A happy coincidence”, I concurred.
Our waiter scurried back and forth in the largely empty dining room. One other couple occupied a table further along the French Windows beneath a sepia print of Muhammad Ali towering over a be-canvased Sonny Liston in the first minute of the first round of their 1965 heavyweight title rematch. “You wouldn’t want to have paid for a ticket for that” I proposed, pondering as to whether the rather extended gap betwixt decision and delivery of our supper were somehow down to there just being the one guy on duty and him having to change into chef’s whites to complete our order.

Helen responded to some mansplaining regarding the artist Norman Wilkinson with a consideration on the subject of her legwear, which was decorated with text from the works of Shakespeare. “You do tend to find it attracts people’s attention – you know, they're wondering which play is it, what font are they using - that sort of thing?” indeed, the gentleman beneath the framed photograph by table twelve appeared to have developed a keen interest in deciphering the works of The Bard whenever he thought that either we or his dinner companion weren’t looking. "I swear that was twelve point Verdana when she sat down" his rather flushed expression seemed to say.
Attentive tweenagers opened doors upon our return to the venue and solicitously wished us a good evening before we settled in to watch the openers – local band The Komodo Project, pleased to note that one effect of the cathedral-like roof canopy was that applause reverberated in a most satisfactory fashion.

We were up next, our confidence (tie-related shenanigans notwithstanding) having been bolstered by a successful run-through a few days earlier in the considerably more intimate environs of The Dove Street Inn in the heart of swinging downtown Ipswich. We’d decided to rehearse the set in as live a performance scenario as we could envisage, which essentially involved inviting as many people as we knew to the pub and doing a dress rehearsal in public - thereby getting used to the vagaries of monitoring and mic techniques, working out a few introductions, such as our “First rule of songwriting” schtick and, as it happens, staying up until much later than was sensible afterwards eating cheese and crackers with our beneficient hosts, putting the world to rights over pints of lovely Brewers Gold. In the spirit of many American establishments we put out a tips jar and were able, at the end of the evening, to at least contribute toward our pro bono sound engineer’s diesel money, still have a few Euros in loose change and not even have to break into that 100 Yuan note.

To conclude the evening, the magnificently bonkers Vienna Ditto, whose photo of our sound check is at the top of the page. I will merely repost what I wrote online about them. Wow, well that was something! Impossible to categorise, but if you put the guitarist from The Black Keys together with one of The Chemical Brothers, added in the singer from The Sundays and back projected a bunch of old OGWT films behind them while drinking mushroom tea you might be getting somewhere close.

My travelling companion – co-guitarist and singer Mr Wendell - and I packed up the car and prepared for the return home. “I think I’m going to change my stage name” he said thoughtfully. “To Papworth Everard”.       

Monday, November 02, 2015

Four Lads Who Changed* the World.

“Still playing?” is a question I get asked more often than not whenever I bump into fellow veterans of the Heavy Big Pop wars, and I am happy to say that - with a few qualifications - I can truthfully answer that yes, I am. Obviously the actual playing element is fairly constant, albeit with the slight qualification that in a public space where anyone can see us doing so is a little more on the recherch√© side, if truth be told. The hen’s teeth element of my public appearances was one of the drivers behind making our final pre-gig rehearsal this month a public event in a pub just so that we could remind ourselves how to interact with an audience in real time without tripping over the monitors and banging on endlessly about how various instruments were “…in tune when we bought them”.
We’ve also been offered another engagement – Bank Holiday Monday, Easter 2016 since you ask – which gives us another goal to aim at, and also enough time to bulk out the set slightly more with the aim of achieving the two hour obligation we have accepted. Since we're currently up to about forty, forty five minutes, that should give us just about enough wiggle room. It was as a result of a throwaway remark from The Fragrant and Charming Helen Mulley (“I’ll try anything once”) during a conversation about the gig that I went back to a bunch of songs that hadn’t seen the light of day for a while in order to see if there was anything that fitted in with our Folk Popera concept regarding the themes of deception, betrayal and fairly poor eyesight** that we could dig out, freshen up and include in the set - the phrase "I'll try almost anything once" being one of the hooks in a long-dormant chorus.

I dug out my big book of lyrics, painstakingly hand-written in black ink on good grade paper in bound notebooks*** and started looking for thematically linked opportunities. Fortunately I seemed to have been going through quite a phase of that sort of malarkey at the time and so among the eighty five or so finished songs committed to the page for posterity's benefit a good few seemed fit for purpose. I dug out one of the CDs we’d compiled and got to work trying to work out the chords, riffs and hooks , a few of which I had completely forgotten were in some of these songs in the first place, a couple of which had been subsequently rehomed and many that I was still quietly proud of. At times I could remember exactly where and when we’d come up with some of the parts and they flooded back in to my mind like old friends, James's tightly-compressed out of phase guitar sigils as fresh as the day they were minted. Another of the things that came to mind was how brilliantly presciently our de-facto Benevolent Dictator had come up with song titles which would shortly to be appropriated by platinum-selling acts on major labels. By the time I joined the band he’d already written ‘Big Love’ (not by Fleetwood Mac) and ‘Faith’ (not by George Michael) and during our time together we would go on to curate ‘I Feel for You’ (not by Chaka Khan) and ‘Better than the Rest’ (not by Bruce Springsteen) among others.               

In case you think I’m veering toward the vainglorious with reference to my formerly glittering career, by the way, I should mention that only this week someone came up to me at the bus stop and asked when The Star Club were getting back together again, and that’s a band who haven’t really fired a shot in anger since 2011. Yesterday I was at a kids’ birthday party when one of the other parents started reminiscing about As Is. “Still playing?” he asked. 


**There are too many examples of sailor boys disappearing for a couple of years off along the Spanish Main or some suchlike only to return all in disguise and not being recognised by their true loves for this to be anything less than coincidental and actually down to ongoing ophthalmic issues.
***You may laugh, but at least three electronic storing formats have become obsolete in the time since I wrote some of those down.