To Hayes in Middlesex for the London heat of something called Live and Unsigned—yes, essentially another “battle of the bands”. The schtick this time is that they don’t listen to any demos: instead you turn up and audition live. I imagine that it’s modelled on these Simon Cowell-style talent searches.
My band, The Furbelows, gamely tackle the mission of getting there. The venue, The Beck Theatre (we are surrounded by yellowing black and white photos of luvvies in productions of The Cherry Orchard and Blithe Spirit) is miles from the nearest tube station and few buses seem very keen to get close. I receive a string of increasingly plaintive phone messages from Neil, our guitarist, as buses pugnaciously zoom past the bus stop and whisk him off in the other direction. Alex is only two hours late, which isn't bad considering he has no money and usually tries to walk to every gig from his lair in Brixton.
The downside of this competition’s format is that they can’t let you play for very long. We turn up, wait for two hours then are finally ushered into a disappointingly small room with disappointingly weedy amps, plug in and play for two minutes. In fact it may have been less that two minutes—I know that this was the maximum anyone was allowed, but we had already learned that plenty of people are gonged off before this. Anyway we play until the panel of 12-year-old judges wave and beg us to stop. After that we have to wait in the corridor until a runner comes out and tells us that we’d been given a thumbs-down but wishes us good luck with our music. Then it was back to London.
You might well wonder why we went there in the first place: after all, an event like this is going to be searching for an act who have a good chance of making it big, thus increasing the chance that their success will reflect well on the competition, please the sponsors (and they had lined up some impressive ones) and build a reputation as a contest that really can put bands on the map. From that perspective, they are clearly going to be after something pretty commercial—which, with the best will in the world, is not how you would describe The Furbelows. But I always feel that it’s worth having a go at most of these things, because You Just Never Know.
And I must say that I didn’t really find it dispiriting. It was quite well organised and a lot of musicians had turned up—especially when you consider that this so-called “London” event wasn’t really in London and the venue was so hard to summit. Yet they came, contestants of all shapes and styles. Nervous youngsters in carefully thought-out band uniforms; relaxed, shaven-headed older and more cynical musos; sunken-faced grey-haired rastas; cool young jazzers sitting on the floor blowing out mellifluous sax runs like streams of bubbles; spotty, gangly ones with directional haircuts earnestly practising choppy riffs on their shiny new bass guitars. I was pleasantly struck by just how varied the styles and appearances were. It was a bit like the canteen scene from Star Wars crossed with the bustling arrivals lounge in heaven in A Matter of Life and Death. There were hundreds of them, they’d all put blood, sweat and tears into polishing whatever it was they wanted to polish—and the vast majority would leave empty-handed. And they knew that, but they did it anyway. On the way in I met popstrels coming out who wished me good luck. As we waited a taxi arrived to take another hopeful away. This hinterland of spirited diversity is the iceberg below the water, supporting the commercial, packaged bit you see. I left feeling rather uplifted by it all—perhaps not least because I realised that however oddball (and clearly inappropriate) we might be, there are many, many others out there doing equally oddball things. A toast to them!