Friday, December 24, 2021

The last great white rhino in the reserve.


Around the start of The Great Unpleasantness I got a call from an agency. Would I be interested in helping out at one of these Covid testing centres the army were setting up around the country? I thought this might get me off the sofa for a few weeks, and so I duly responded, and a couple of days later found myself standing outside a portacabin on the newly deconsecrated Park n’ Ride somewhere near Copdock. 

Little did I know that twenty months later, I’d still be reporting for duty, albeit without the cheery farewell to the family which for some time consisted of the mantra “Cheerio, Daddy’s just off to collect phlegm in a bucket!” before the morning meeting in which we might be informed that (for instance) if we saw any drones overhead we should get under cover in case of a remotely-launched acid attack.

Over time the job evolved into something pitched as a hybrid somewhere between Big Brother and Love Island. The first wave led to a firm and lasting bond between the brotherhood of the Exit Bays - me, Craig, Callum and Tom - one of the driest and funniest people I’ve ever met - and our honorary fifth wheel, Sarah - My Lil’ Princess, for whom we had to bring in the kids’ version of the Trivial Pursuit questions and who would, if she didn’t know the answer to a geography question, answer ‘Australia’.*

There were a lot of nicknames around site -  That Crazy Russian, The Duchess, Sexy Harry (and of course Non-Sexy Harry), Young Blud, Thing One and Thing Two, Surallan, The Doc and - possibly my favourite - My Sex Dwarf. Someone would bring in a tray of cupcakes. I would arrange the sandwich deliveries in order of palatability. There were quizzes. At one point a Backgammon school was established.

Once the first few of a bewildering number of revolving door-style management changes put in place their squad rotation policy, the old gang broke up and we moved into a new era. Admittedly this allowed for making new acquaintances since I was no longer in an isolated outpost at the end of the car park, and from these conversations in shared adversity new friendships and bonds were formed. The long winter days just flew by.

By the time we celebrated my birthday with a themed quiz we knew each other so well that over seventy per cent of the respondents answered the question “Who would Shane like to see wrestle in jelly?” correctly and most of them also got the bonus answer to “What flavour?”.

We toyed with the idea of making our daily lives into a sitcom, but reasoned that many of the sits would be too far-fetched to be acceptable as ‘com’. The morning brief where we were informed that we needed to wash our hands more but use fewer paper towels overall and the Afghanistan-based rant by one particularly unhinged boss were merely two such examples. One of the guys and I wrote a song about it.

Time moved inexorably on and folk started returning to their roles in the real world. Students, bankers, chefs, airline pilots even. All with the tell-tale bikini-strap marks of a Summer spent wearing a mask outdoors. I got a job running one of the mobile units we operate out of the site, which meant I got to travel the length and breadth of the county and beyond. “Standing at the dock in Harwich” hasn’t got half the resonance as an opening line to ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ as it might have.

Anyway, today I picked up my Employee of the Month certificate, and had cause to think back on all of those people I’ve shared a birthday cake, a portaloo or a game of On Site Bingo with and who, for better or worse, have helped to make me the person I am today. I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we passed the audition.

*You should have seen her face that time the answer was actually ‘Australia’.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Green and Red

After two years of The Great Unpleasantness interfering with our plans, The Picturehouse Big Band made its return to the live arena in Stowmarket (natch) and despite fearing that we might have forgotten how these things work, by the end of the evening I think we had firmly reestablished the central tenet and mission statement of the group in that it’s just like going to the pub with your friends.

From TAFKAG’s* studious reprogramming  of his keyboard sounds during the day (he also literally dusted off his speakers, which is when he found one of the tweeters rolling around in the cabinet where a tweeter is not supposed rolling around to be), to the surprise guest singer toward the end of the set (modesty forbids identifying the party, but regular ‘Swich gig goers will be astonished to learn that he did not perform bearfoot…) we had an almost literal riot.

Admittedly Last Nite was a bit tawdry around the edges, but it was still better than The Strokes’ version, and that second encore meant that at least we got to re-do Band on the Run, but properly this time. 

Many thanks firstly to my Picturehouse brethren, everyone who rocked up to a packed Pickerel (especially Linda Stix for the photo), that nice girl who played drums in the full Nell Gwynne corset and Harvey Two-Face Halloween** make up while we were packing away, Pat for PA, and lastly Greenwich Mean Time, for letting us have an extra hour in bed on the morning after.

*The Artist Formerly Known as Gibbon.

**At least I’m assuming she doesn’t go around like that all the time.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

“A Picture House in Every One Horse Town”

I am having everything above the neck trimmed and tidied when Danny, my hairdresser* enquires as to my plans for the rest of the day. As they do. I am to rehearse with Picturehouse prior to a forthcoming engagement, as we in the band figure that muscle memory alone is not going to pull us through, what with The Great Unpleasantness having put off our gig schedule by about two years, and we’ve never been the best at remembering to rehearse anyway. I realise that this will probably actually be the first time I’ve sat down with (say) The Drummer for about two years. I know, right?

Everyone having remembered where he lives, we gather at (indeed) The Drummer’s house, he plugs in his electronic kit, tiny tiny amplifiers are produced seemingly from out of nowhere and we start to work through the set list, which The Singer has resisted the temptation to put into chronological order. Since he, The Bass Player and I are also in this country’s premier proponents of East Angliacana, we have seen each other only recently, but it is splendid to hang out with The Other Guitarist again, he resplendent in the almost ubiquitous (these days) thick framed glasses**, his flaming ginger thatch calmed by the passing of the years into subdued autumnal strawberry blond. 

During a break in proceedings, The Bass Player recounts a visit to a mutual friend of ours, who is reluctantly selling his drums. Due to the nature of the Suffolk rock, pop, folk and ambient loon jazz scene, we all have various connections in common, and so he - the vendor - had enlisted help in identifying who it was in the picture he was going to use to advertise the kit online. He knew that it had been taken at The Moon and Mushroom, a bijou establishment in Swilland***, twice named Suffolk Pub of the Year and at a gig by his band Cara Cleibh (also featuring Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogs’ Fiddly Richard), and also that the support act was on stage at the time. It was a good photo of the kit, it was just that they couldn’t work out who was playing just in front of it. Drummer Seamus**** suggested it might be The Other Guitarist.

The Bass Player squinted at the picture and pointed out that The Other Guitarist was, and remains, left-handed and that the ginger guitar player in the photo was demonstrably not. “That” he pointed out “Is Ed Sheeran”.

*And beard, and ears and eyebrows.

**Only Gibbon, on bass and keyboards, has resisted the temptation to let his eyes decay with age.

***Literally ‘Pig Land’.

****Seamus Hussey. When we’re in the band gods kitchen together I’m Ted Bidits and Gib is Justin Credible. Stephen is Wendell Gee and Steve is Kilbey. Keep up at the back, there’ll be a quiz later.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

The Heaped Plaise of Frattery.

To The Snug, where a full complement of Dogs have assembled beneath the hopbines in order to [dramatic hand gesture] create. We haven’t got our heads together in the country for quite the time due to The Great Unpleasantness and so it is with some trepidation that we take to our seats, sofas, deckchairs and, in one case, exercise bicycle and collectively wonder out loud what we’re going to do. La Mulley suggests that we warm up with something we know, and so a slow, countrified version of Not That Kind of Girl is extemporised.*

Suitably warmed up, I suggest something I’ve been working on, tentatively working titled The Merchant of Venus and before long we are locked back into the familiar cycle of hesitation, repetition and deviation - almost the anti-Just a Minute, and during which we learn that Helen has never seen an episode of Taskmaster, Mr. Wendell and I discuss our top five favourite Waterboys gigs, and Turny Winn buys a snake.

Over in the corner by the Marty O’Reilly poster, Helen takes a pencil to the extended, breath-defying opening line. I suggest an alternative to one later couplet, to conclude with the phrase “…surfers in The Suez”. Someone suggests that this deliberately invites a Mondegreen, and although I agree that “…in the sewers” might perform the role admirably, it’s nowhere near that time TT wondered why ‘cokehead’ might be such a deliberate term of endearment to employ in an otherwise perfectly serviceable love song. “It’s ‘coquette’”.

Before too too long we have an acceptable demonstration version available, which we commit to Garageband for reasons of austerity and Mr. Wendell, as usual, lasers in on probable sources and influences.

“It’s that Nagasaki thing” he suggests, and I am indeed reminded** of the first night I saw Channel 4, taking a break from work in the hotel restaurant, and slumping down in front of the staff room TV to see this strange fusion of rock and folk music***, the likes I’d never heard before, and which was probably the first time I discovered something for my very own self - probably why I dove headlong into the oeuvre, and still haven’t properly surfaced to this day. I used to perform a couple of Christy Moore songs during my folk troubadour phase, and indeed I did Moving Hearts’ Hiroshima, Nagasaki Russian Roulette which it turns out has an extraordinary number of verses and is tongue-twistingly tricky at some points, and which is possibly one of the reasons that I have been venting my frustration on Helen by presenting her with similar challenges ever since.**** (My belated sympathies with various audiences in The Albion Mills, who’d probably just nipped out for a pint of mild and a game of darts and had to listen to me earnestly performing Sacco and Vanzetti instead. In front of the dart board).

I looked it up today and although I’m not sure it’s the same gig, it sure looks like it. None more eighties, even down to the hot wired Strat neck pick up and the out of phase lead guitar solo (see also The Home Service, whom I similarly fell heavily for and for whom still hold a candle).

So there you go - musical fellow travellers who know you better than you know yourself. Mind you, he’s gonna freak when he hears JJ Cale’s Carry On

  • *Yes we will, probably.
  • **This part’s a bit like that scene in Ratatouille - bear with…
  • ***The next week they had The Damned doing White Rabbit, so things could all have turned out so very differently.
  • ****”Tell me about your relationship with your mother…”

Thursday, September 23, 2021

“…and Leon’s getting LARGER!”

“It’s about that time of the evening - when you’ve had a dreadful day trying to corral the twins - and you finally snuggle up with a boy under each arm, fresh out of the bath, them smelling of talc, their tousled hair sticking out at angles, ready to hear the bedtime story you’ve been working your way through for the last few nights…” Helen emotes to a hushed audience, introducing the next song.

“…and then you remember you don’t have kids…” interjects Mr. Wendell, drily.

We are exploring the second rule of songwriting at The Fisher Theatre in the heart of swinging downtown Bungay, a much delayed return to the theatre of dreams which has been put off so often by the great unpleasantness that we are not sure if anyone will remember who we are from the last time we played. To be honest, a few of us are having the same issue. Nevertheless, we have been warmly welcomed to the venue by sound engineer Dan, who regards the seven-piece line up phlegmatically, and enquires as to whether we’d like onstage monitors with an air which suggests that he would really, really appreciate an answer in line with the one that small children asking if they can have a fourth chocolate biscuit wouldn’t. Of course, in order to maintain the eternal balance between the talent on stage and that of the technical expertise deployed backstage, we insist that we do. And another vocal mic wouldn’t go amiss while you’re down there…

Monitors in situ, old-school DI’s and snakes appropriately routed, we soundcheck and retire to the dressing rooms (plural) to consider our good fortune. There are mirrors, lights, an unfeasibly large collection of theatre costumes (including what looks very much like a lioness stole and a tiara, which La Mulley seriously considers adopting for the evening as a ‘look’). There are also five members of the group considering the paisley button-down which I have placed on a convenient hanger. 

“Is that your shirt?” Turny Winn asks, solicitously.

“Yes” I reply truthfully.

“Are you planning to wear it onstage?” he continues.

“Yes” I affirm.

He indicates the rest of the group in a manner reminiscent of a shop steward in a Carry On film from the golden age, with a waggle of his thumb.

“We don’t think you’ll get into it…”


After a lovely set from our co-traveller Tony James Shevlin, we are unleashed upon the good folk of Bungay, who seem as pleased to be back in a proper venue listening to proper music as we are. They are kind, solicitous, engaged and appreciative, and buoyed by their vibes we, in turn, take our chance to shine. Up in the gallery Dan - it turns out - has spent some of the set with headphones plugged into the console, enjoying his own private concert experience. 

We relax into the show. Everyone is on top of their game. I even eschew the opportunity to do a banjo joke. That’s how in the moment we were. The theatre audience - two thirds full, not one third empty - grants us an encore.

“This is unprecedented in the history of pop music!” quips Helen. “Another song!? Well, I’m not sure we have anything prepared…”

By the time I get home, there are already laudatory comments on social media. I retire far too late (tell me about it…) with a warm glow, not entirely Pinot Noir-dependent. The next day at work a woman in a posh car drives over the cleaning equipment we’d put out to mop up the mess where some bloke had taken the opportunity to spit at me. That’s the thing about fame, fame, fleeting fame. Some days you’re the BMW, some days you’re the bucket.

Monday, September 06, 2021

Schrödinger's Acoustic Spot.

After a short delay (of about a year and two months), I am off to The Maverick Festival (see blogs passim) for a weekend of country, blues, folk and Americana in the country, and this year - due in no small part to the ravages of The Great Unpleasantness - with added East Angliacana in the shape of Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogs. 

We are contemplating our name on the playbill outside The Barn Stage prior to soundcheck and considering - even with the Americanisation of dropping the ‘U’ - how much room it takes up on posters. “I’m thinking we might change our name to ‘The Neighbourhood’ confides Mr. Wendell. “Yes, but those three, four and five letter words aren’t really the issue here, are they?” points out WAG Becky phlegmatically.

I am also here in my guise as Stage Wrangler for The Medicine Show - a pop up boutique stage for the off duty talent to stretch out with some covers or, in some cases, simply warm up for the main event. Tucked away in a paddock behind the bar, I am doing the equivalent of tightening the rigging and checking the bowsprit for woodworm when I hear the first of the turns being announced in The Barn. At which point I remember that we’re the first turn on in the barn…

A short sprint through the crowd later I have managed to retain both my stage shirt and my dignity and we haul away into our opening number. The unspoken advantage of being bottom of the bill is that you are, necessarily, often top of the list for sound-checks, and so we are buoyant from the off, confident that our pre-show run through of The Byrds “You’re Still On My Mind” has settled the nerves of the sound crew, and Helen, who did ask if we could follow it up with “…something we know”.*

Fiddly seems unencumbered by the lack of most of his pinkie, which he apparently managed to remove with some sort of mechanical implement earlier in the week, just as Turny’s banjo-fingering digit has grown back after that incident with the secateurs some weeks ago, and we are all - band and audience - pleased to be back in the room/barn, doing what we like to do best. We, telling stories with wood and string, and they listening, applauding, and buying our records afterwards. 

A VIP area has been set up to thank those who retained their tickets throughout The Great Unpleasantness but it is empty. No-one wants to be swanning around drinking free Big Drop when there’s an actual, physical manifestation of a festival happening just over the velvet rope. There’s a palpable sense of relief all round, an exhalation of pressure - one agent mentions that we’re the first band he’s seen play live in two years. Poor bastard.

Job done, and back to the acting, I welcome the legend that is Jon Langford to The Show with the immortal words “THE Jon Langford?” He is a grizzled old veteran of the punk wars, hunkered down in a big hat and sheepskin jacket that makes him look like the sort of rancher who has had to deal with his reckless youngest son shooting off his mouth in the saloon in town once too often. He also greets me with his beautiful deep Welsh burr by name all weekend, enquiring after my welfare each time. The sort of turn you are prepared to crawl over broken riders for.

I take time out to burst into Dana Immanuel’s backstage enclave to wish them well for their show. “You won’t remember me!” I exclaim. “I do…” purrs cajonista H, albeit in the sort of tone which suggests that somebody may have forgotten to renew a restraining order. “Do a fabulous show!” is all I can think of to blurt. I resist the temptation to go the full Wizard of Oz and continue “…and your little doggie!!” in case I’m dragged away by security but do manage a strangled “I love you!”** The next time I saw Dana was at two in the morning singing ‘Wagon Wheel’. As you do.

Saturday dawns full and bright, and I have another day of my virtual twelve hour house concert to enjoy. M’good friend and occasional employer Tony James Shevlin puts in a shift in the afternoon and then later again in the Stygian gloom of the evening, where we are delighted to bump into Rich Hall, later to appear in his own show, but currently mournfully regarding the line up for the John Prine tribute to take place in The Peacock Cafe (another barn in all truth), which has been COVID- safeguarded in terms of ventilation  by the simple expedient of taking out about a third of the wall. 

The queue for the stage is considerably larger than some of the audiences I’ve seen, but Rich is kind enough to look obligingly like he knows me for my souvenir snap. During a gap in proceedings on The Medicine Show I take to the stage myself, indulging in a few songs just in order that I can say I trod the boards as a solo artist once again. Helen is later annoyed that I didn’t summon her to perform and I gravely inform her that this constitutes misuse of the radio under the Stage Manager’s Code. She nods solemnly, abashed.

On Sunday I have a lighter line up than I deserve, and so have mostly to make sure Tony Winn doesn’t fall off the stage during his return to the live arena. He is ably supported by The Fragrant and Charming Helen Mulley on vocals, who is keen that her offspring should be attendant to behold her magnificence. The boys are working the festival and so I offer to summon them via the power of wireless communication. “I thought that breached the Stage Manager’s Code?” she suggests.

I summon my inner Captain Barbossa. “It’s not so much a code, Missy” I explain piratically. It’s more a set o’ guidelines…”


**That from me to them, not the other way round, in case you were wondering.

Friday, July 23, 2021

“You can dress me in Prada and uncomfortable shoes…”

Finally, a return to the live arena for Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogs as we are engaged to perform at an end of term/retirement party at a local Primary School. The audience is overwhelmingly female - I haven’t played to such a gender specific crowd since that time The Star Club did a graduation party for student nurses, when bass player-come-booking agent Kilbey, upon being informed of the generous fee, replied solemnly “Well, you’ll have to give us time to raise the money…”

We are to perform al fresco, which gives us a sense of health and personal safety during the time of the great unpleasantness, and the familiar setting of the sports field gazebo lends us an enormous sense of wellbeing, as does the reassuring presence behind the sound desk of Blue House James, who has merely had to haul everything out of his shed, set it up, plug it in, and hope it all works as well as it did last time*. He regards a mildewy microphone solemnly. “This hasn’t been cleaned in about a year and a half” he explains “But neither has it been used”.

I am trying out the Nashville Tuning of which I have been reading so much recently, which essentially involves buying a set of twelve-string light gauges, and throwing away all the thicker ones. It gives a few of the songs a lighter, jangly, almost mandolin-y feel, aside from all the ones where I’ve put a capo on the fifth fret to give it a lighter, jangly…well,you get the idea.

Turny Winn, having secateured his banjo fingering hand into uselessness, is on one-handed melodeon, taking time out mid-performance to play a short set of his love songs** to the accompaniment of the Head, who has also delivered a stirring speech thanking the staff for their sterling efforts over the past year and a half, and which delivers the sort of analysis of the performance of certain ministers of state over the same time period which is most akin to the reviews of Spinal Tap’s 1980 Polymer Records comeback album. He also points out that the event (including our stipend) has been independently funded (just in case you, or a passing columnist for The Spectator was unduly concerned).

At break time we retire to a classroom to enjoy a hearty repast, including (somewhat appropriately) Eton Mess Cake, home made coleslaw, chicken satay and a vegetarian option for Mr. Wendell who, as with most of his kind, usually exists on crisps and crudités if and when Green Room catering is provided. He spends the second set slightly bloated as a result. Luckily (for him) he doesn’t sing much. “Don’t let me do that again” he entreats.

As the sun sets magnificently behind the gazebo, the full moon emerges from behind the sports centre, and Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Radio Nowhere’ soundtracks  the pack-down, Fiddly reflects on the incomers to his village over the course of the pandemic. “All looking to garden” he says. “Topsoil’s gone through the roof”. We consider this scenario, solemnly. “You can tell they’re not locals” he concludes. “Country folk don’t buy dirt”

*It does, it really does.


Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Whoooahhh - your secateurs are on fiiirrre!

“Which one is The Mendlesham Mast?” I interrupt the discussion to enquire. “Is it the tall thin one, or the one that looks like The Empire State Building?” Mr. Wendell is momentarily nonplussed. “I always thought it was that one” he waves peremptorily at the gargantuan structure off the port bow. He doesn’t shout “Robots!” though, which is what my son used to do on his way to nursery.

We are deep in discussion regarding the wisdom of boxed sets - currently The Esher Demos are receiving our attention, and if you don’t know what The Esher Demos are, you’d probably best sit in the back with La Mulley, who is bathed in the warm reflective glow of her mobile device and letting talk of the Bob Johnston sessions wash over her like cool rain on a summer’s night. It is also, coincidentally, both summer, and raining.

We are on our way back from Fiddly’s, where we have been workshopping the festival set in anticipation of our return to the live arena at the tail end of next month. In terms of social distancing and isolation, we are essentially the poster band for government guidelines in that it is astonishingly rare for us to be able to assemble all seven members of the band in one place at any one time anyway, hence the last-month preparation.

It is doubly egregious then, to receive the news that Turny Winn - our esteemed banjoista and Edinburgh Fringe veteran - has been occupying himself in the garden and has inadvertently pruned an integral part of his left hand. “Is it his whole finger?” someone asks, anxiously. “No, I think it’s the one next to it”. He regards the workshop full of awls and bandsaws cautiously. Fiddly takes the precaution of turning the nearest one off at the wall, first pointing out the scar from when he dragged his own finger across it. I quietly regard the bit where a sliced my knuckle with the sharp bit of the dog food can that morning, feeling a bit like Richard Dreyfuss in that bit on the boat in Jaws.

There have already been a number of less-than sympathetic exchanges on social media regarding the impact that Turny’s mishap might have on his technique - my own contribution is to point out that when Deep Purple’s Tommy Bolin was similarly incapacitated, the guitar roadie simply tuned his guitars to a number of open chords, pushed him out on the stage and told him to get on with it. Mind you, there were 14,000 eager Japanese fans waiting to see that performance, not a small group of teachers eager to celebrate the end of term with some gently applied East Angliacana in Colchester.

Mr. Winn compensates for his banjo-less fortune with some hastily adapted melodeon parts (ie he plays some new arrangements on the squeezebox, not that he uses the bellows to strum a G major on the Appalachian frying pan, that’s much more a Fred Frith kind of turn. Although a lot of our stuff is in G, so it couldn’t hurt). As when we had a bass player who played stand-up string, we are playing the same songs, but a subtle shift in instrumentation means that they now have a more pastoral, Trad. arr. aspect to them. 

This is pleasing to us generally, Turny aside, who enjoys playing it and is concerned that this might be part of a greater plot to oust the five string calfskin racquet from the ensemble. I assure him that this is not the case, however someone points out that with the reduction in percussive attack afforded by its absence Young Young Bob is going to have to work a lot harder on the banging and shaking front.

“That’s fine” says Gibbon, over by the bobbin sander. “He is the youngest. Anyway, what did I come in here for..?”

Monday, April 26, 2021

“Everyone else is doing it - so why can’t we..?”

Back in the opening overs of the Great Unpleasantness, we were just about gearing up for Helstock (see blogs passim.) which in a different universe would have* taken place about a week after we were all finally told off and sent to our rooms to think about what we’d done. 

A year later, it was looking as if we were going to have to postpone or cancel again, before someone in Posh North Essex suggested we (or rather, ‘they’) host one of those online virtual festival thingies that we’d been hearing so much about recently - that way we could get more players in, there wouldn’t be a venue capacity on attendees, the queues for the toilets were definitely going to be a lot shorter, and no-one would have to get nailed to anything.

Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogs had a couple of remotely recorded and edited audio-visual submissions accepted, and having been invited to submit something of my own for consideration, I went back to the neglected corner of the bookcase where I keep my big book of things I’ve made up out of my own head, blew the dust off the spine and pored through the contents with a rheumy old eye until I came across this old thing, originally written on the back of a boat** somewhere up an Irish river, probably in Cork, and originally committed to hard drive some years later on the first Songs from The Blue House album, on which Olly from Crouch Vale played spoons.

Originally a quasi-comedy interlude in gods kitchen gigs (how dare you mock my suffering!) we ended up playing it at a lock-in back in Ireland some years later which was quite the blast but, as befits my advanced maturity and attendant gravitas, I decided to rework it in a more reflective manner hoping to reach out to those many fellow travellers on the road to love’s redemption I’ve shared asphalt burns with over the years.

I believe Clapton tried the same thing with ‘Layla’.

*And indeed still might have done, depending on your philosophical bent and/or outstanding view on String Theory.

**Whilst travelling upon, not literally marked up in anti-foul paint on the stern.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogs - New Material for 2021

I am pleased and proud to announce that we have new product dropping this week*.

‘Hollow Man’ was recorded remotely in lockdown by the entire group, and is coupled with a new version of crowd-pleasing, set-closing favourite ‘Nelson’.

Both songs will be available on our Bandcamp site from Sunday March 21st.

Two accompanying videos will be aired as part of ‘What the Helstock?’ virtual festival on the Blue House Agency Facebook page livestream on Saturday the 20th - scheduled showtime is around half past eight GMT depending on prevailing winds and weather conditions in the East Anglian region -

This is a digital only release, but you can listen to it a couple of times for free online before you make your mind up as to whether you want to own it or not.

We also do parties, festivals and house concerts, so once we’re up and running again, if you like what you hear, do get in touch.

*Ed - please check with the young folk to see if this is still what they do.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

“He’s thrown a kettle over a pub - what have you done..?”

You would be surprised - although not unduly, I feel -  at how little I make from this Blog. I know you like to think of me descending from my Dubai apartment in order to do a little light dictation between mocktail shoots, but it’s not all like sourdough and circuses in my career. That’s why I work in a car park, and you don’t*. 

Looking back - as I frequently do - over past chapters (mainly for throwback posts originally published on the same date as whenever I find myself in a contemplative mood - which is most of the time, these days) I sometimes wonder why certain entries have caught, if not the Zeitgeist, then occasionally eine vorübergehende Stimmung. As it turns out, this is usually when someone with more friends than me has reposted something on Facebook. I remember looking at the visitor count when it got to twenty thousand and thinking that was pretty impressive. I could visualise it as a well-attended Cropredy Festival, which was pretty special for me. Most individual entries get forty or fifty passing views, which if translated into a pub gig, would keep me more than happy and entertained for an evening (as, hopefully, I would them) so I’m quite happy essentially scribbling in the margins, occasionally making a grab for attention when I get involved with one of my celebrity friends.

It’s a very similar take on what I do with what I occasionally refer to as my music ‘career’. A few folk gathered together - every so often a festival crowd, and/or some perfect strangers taking the time out to let you know how they enjoyed the show. This is obviously a lot trickier than simply sitting down with a hot cup of tea and - very much in the manner and spirit of Led Zeppelin, simply rambling on. We have to get into a room, make things up out of our own heads, play them all at the same time - one of the issues with the great unpleasantness over the last year or so has been that even in times of reduced lockdown, allowing six people to meet in a socially-distanced scenario doesn’t really help if you’re in a seven piece band. You can’t always leave out the banjo player... 

As part of our prep for this year’s What the Helstock we have written, individually prepared, recorded, videoed and remotely submitted our parts for a brand new song, Fiddly has lovingly assembled, cut and pasted, re-worked, mixed and sent out rough mixes (that’s six other opinions to wrangle, remember) as well as revamping the band favourite (we usually close the first set with it) that we’ve been working on and tweaking via electronic mail and dead letter boxes for about a year now, and we won’t even be able to hear the applause when it goes out. A fellow traveller colleague spent hours on his multi-tracked, loving synchronised, cross-cultural, split-screen recording and was encouraged that it had clocked up a couple of hundred views on YouTube in under a week. One of our workmates whipped out her phone and navigated quickly to her sister’s TikTok. “She’s had one point one million views” she explained. We looked on, impressed. “What did she do?!” we breathed in wonder.

“She got bored one day and dyed our pond blue”.

*Big up to the Park and Ride Massive. Whaddup, Beaches?


Wednesday, February 24, 2021

What the Helstock!?

Casting a rheumy eye back over blogs past in an effort to keep up the flow of
content – albeit reduced, reused, recycled or remixed content that makes little sense beyond the universal themes of getting, playing or regretting having played gigs – it seems that the overarching theme at this time of year is always “What are we going to do about Helstock*?”

Last year this was quite a simple task in that a suitable venue had been secured, folk were already eyeing up the cheese stall at their local farmer’s market** (entry is traditionally by interesting cheese) and I think we’d even put out a set list so that we could ignore it on the night at our leisure. Then of course came the first wave of the great unpleasantness, and even before you could say “Black Bob’s your uncle” folk were politely declining the opportunity to drive across county or even country lines in order to sit in an enclosed space with thirty or forty other people, some of whom would be projecting across the room as boisterously as possible, and even with your own microphone that’s a hell of an aerosol storm to get caught up in.

Fast forward to 2021*** and ruminant minds were already considering how best to go about marking the passing of another orbit around the daystar on Helen’s behalf. Virtual events seem to be in vogue this year, and so rather than gather the clans around a fixed point in the universe Blue House Music impressario and shed magnate James Partridge agreed that he might curate an online festival of the arts, combining live performances with pre-recorded inserts, and juggling the whole thing from the security of his own bunker (if nothing else, the backstage area is likely to have slightly better laundry facilities than he’s used to).

This obviously opened up a whole new world of opportunities for us in Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogs in that we could contribute from the safety and security of our own bubbles AND none of us would have to appoint a designated driver to get us home afterwards.**** All those livestreamed events though? All a sham. Those bands aren’t playing live from their respective bedrooms, bathrooms or libraries (and I’ve lived in flats where that’s all one room, by the way), they’re carefully syncing up to a pre-recorded track, contributed ad hoc and carefully pieced together by a skilled engineer in his home studio – or workshop, since we’re getting Fiddly to do ours. It’s a bit like being on Top of the Pops in the olden days. 

Fortunately, Helen and I had a co-write all ready to go, so all we needed to do was to sync the parts, add a count in, make sure everyone had access to appropriate recording facilities and - I won’t lie to you – cross our fingers. I mean, if nothing else, it’s taken a shorter time to get through the process than our last effort, which I see from my notes involved Tony doing a squeezebox part on March 13th last year and hasn’t seen the light of day since. It’s not like we’ve been holed up in Rockfield drinking cider and harassing the local dope dealers for the good shit, either.

I myself have contributed a pre-recorded solo performance which I’m rather hoping doesn’t get excluded for reasons of time, or insufficient global appeal, as it’s also my birthday around this time of year, and it means I get to piggyback on the celebrations (and occasionally the celebrants) without having to organise my own party. At least there’s a fair chance that I’ll make the cut in that I won’t have to fill in several pages of application form and contribute a short missive on what Helstock means to me before being considered (and ultimately ignored) by a committee of the righteous*****. Ironically, given the bits and bytes I’ve devoted to Helstock over the years, I am ideally situated to contribute just such a prize-winning essay, but hopefully it won’t come to that.

If it does, I might send this one.

Helstock will be broadcast live on YouTube on March 20th

*Every year we get together around the time of The Fragrant and Charming Helen Mulley’s birthday for a shindig involving friends, relatives and, usually, one special guest whose actual job it is. Search the blogger tags for ‘Helstock’ and you’ll get the idea. There are so many on here that I once gave her a small book compiled of the entries as a birthday card.

**Mine was principally Italian in origin, which gives you some idea that the market was local, and the farmer was not.

***Or [Needle scratch] “You’re probably wondering how I ended up here..?”

****Although I did walk Helen home through town on a Friday night after we’d decamped to The Steamboat one year and I didn’t see a look that simultaneously appalled and bewildered until years later, when we put on The Chemical Brothers at Glastonbury while she was napping.

*****Obviously one way around this process is to be of a level of talent which means that you are invited to participate instead of having to submit a recent photograph and a YouTube video via email, but fortune has not smiled sufficiently on my endeavours thus far, The Star Club and Picturehouse aside. So, yeah, it has actually.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Another Frowback Friday


On January 30th, 2006 I sat down after a gig and wrote the first entry in one of these ‘Blogs’ I’d been reading so much about on the internet. I was in a band called Picturehouse (still am, or rather am again, if truth be told) whose mission statement was, and remains, “It’s like going to the pub with your mates”.

In the succeeding decade and a half we split up, reformed, played in (at least) half a dozen splinter outfits, formed bands, recorded albums, went to festivals, and I started reflecting on not only our life in the slow lane, but that of my friends, colleagues, family and contemporaries - many of whom are the same people. I got a job in radio, I wrangled some Americana, and at various times shared a stage with at least one ex-member of Fairport Convention, a Grammy winner, and the drummer out of Cake (not all the same person).

Occasionally I rustled up the blogs and made them into books - hence my CV, which begins “Bon vivant and best-selling author...”*. Obviously, recent events have meant that the juggernaut of breathless prose and reportage has been slowed from a deluge to a trickle, hence the recycling going on over the past few months, but I’m keeping my head above water. There’s a weekly cover version going up on my Soundcloud page - it may not seem that impressive at first glance but if this pandemic goes on much longer it’s going to make a hell of a Spotify playlist of the originals - and we in The Neighbourhood Dogs are dipping our collective toes into the wellspring of remote recording. Maybe we’ll get one of those Celebrity Squares-type videos out for you.

If you’ve been on the bus for a while, thanks. Make a seat for yourself and make sure you don’t eat your sandwiches too early - there’ll be nothing more until lunchtime. If you’ve only recently joined the company, welcome aboard. Enjoy the ride. What a long, strange trip it’s become...

It doesn’t.*