Monday 8 November 2010

Give us a break

A hi-hat clutch. Breakable, apparently.

I guess we’re all used to the way music styles seem to come in waves—you hear one new band who sound just like something straight out of the 80s and sudden they all sound like that. One bands grows beards and suddenly they’re all doing it. Suddenly they’re all wearing skinny ties or waistcoats that don’t make it down to the waistbands of their jeans. Shows how, even in a “creative” arena we’re all constantly feeding off each other.

But it’s interesting how these trends seem to affect even the most mundane aspects of gigging in the world of the Great Unsigned.

When I was first playing in London, many bands ago, there were certain conventions about pub gigs: they would usually cost £4, discounted to £3 if you had a flyer, which everyone did. (The flyers were handed out by the bands to their "fans" so this was a way of tracking which bands had attracted which fans; you got paid—if at all—in accordance with this. People seem to have lost interest in "flyer deals", but I guess promotion is all online now.)* There would typically be three bands on the bill. And they all brought their gear: this went without saying. On stage you would have rows of amps in front of each other like shark’s teeth—the headliners soundchecked first with their equipment, then the next band set up their amps in front of those, then the next band in front of those. The band at the bottom of the bill would soundcheck last, and then perform with the least amount of space. After each act played they would peel away their layer of black boxes until the headliners once more had the stage to themselves. I even saw this happen at Wembley Arena.

At the time it never occurred to me to wonder if it would have been the end of the world if they had simply all used the same equipment.

At some point all this changed. Nowadays it’s perfectly normal for one band to bring gear (traditionally the headliners) and let everyone share it, or for different bands to pledge to bring different bits of kit. Perhaps the universality of email now makes it easier for bands to liaise with each other—which of course absolves the “promoter” from organising any of this. A cynic might also suggest that having just one set of backline for all bands means you can now squeeze four, five, six, even seven acts on to one bill, in the hope that each will bring a few more punters. It also means that you don’t have several vans and cars all trying to park outside the venue (London venues always seem to be situated on a traffic island or pedestrian mall or some other place that has been designed to allow zero access for wheeled transport.)

© michael s marks
The Furbelows on stage this Halloween. Mark was not
told on this occasion that he needed to bring "breakables"
and had to cadge them off other drummers, but I've been
in situations where drummers simply refuse to lend
Or perhaps one day a muso had a eureka moment when he realised that the sound the audience hears is ultimately at the mercy of the house PA—the guitar amp will have a microphone in front of it, going into the PA mix. (The bassist doesn’t even get that—the soundman usually takes a signal straight from the instrument, as if bass players can’t be trusted to turn their amps on properly.)** So it doesn’t make much difference which amp you use, or at least not as much difference as the quality of the soundman and the acoustics of the room.

Or perhaps the eureka moment actually came when a guitarist let another guitarist use his amp at a gig—and it didn’t explode! I’m always happy to let other bands use our gear: if I’ve gone to the effort of schlepping it to the venue, lugging it up/down the stairs and setting it up, we might as well get the best out of it by letting it make some more music. And frankly anything to avoid having any more stuff on the stage—which is probably tiny and rotten and about to collapse. I’ve never known anyone to damage an amp by putting Bad Notes through it.

Of course the logical conclusion of all this is for venues to have their own house equipment which all can use. This is beginning to happen—but I’ve never played at a venue where all the drumkit is provided. The drummer always has to bring his own “breakables”. That’s the term they always use. What are “breakables”? It always includes snare drum and cymbals, usually bass drum pedal and sometimes the hi-hat clutch. (This is a lump of metal that holds the top hi-hat in place. It’s small but without it you can’t really play your gig. I have rigged up a replacement with gaffer tape, but it didn’t really work. Unlike the time I made a makeshift snare stand out of an upturned bar stool and some gaffer tape, a work of genius but that’s another story…)

I don’t know who first developed the concept of the breakable, but the fear has spread like wildfire. We are talking about drums here—objects that are designed to be hit with sticks. Yes I’m sure you can break a cymbal by smashing it with a sledgehammer or backing a truck over it, but the same applies to a guitar amp or indeed a guitarist. I don’t get it.

Mark, drummer in the Furbelows, has two cymbals but seldom uses both. Originally this was because he only had one cymbal stand; so he would use one and move it from one side of the kit to the other for certain songs. Eventually this bugged me so much I bought another one for him to use. But increasingly we’re playing at venues where there is a house kit, sans breakables, which Mark brings in a backpack. But he can’t fit the big one in the bag so he still ends up playing with just one.

Some day I’ll invent the cheap, medical grade, disposable cymbal and I shall be a rich man.

* Of course back in those days there was also "pay to play". You "hired the PA" for £60 then took the door money, so if you could bring in 20 people you'd break even. At the time it was considered a scandal and I think the Musician's Union put paid to it, but looking back it doesn't seem so outrageous. Or course the Furbelows would be screwed—and if this is the only option then it's forcing all bands to be promoters too—but if a band does have a following and fancies the challenge it could be quite enterprising.
** I'm sure sound guys would rather there were no amps on stage at all. They are there mainly for the benefit of the musicians so they can hear themselves. But only in very small venues will the sound the audience hears be coming principally from the onstage amps. The problem for the sound engineer is that once the gig starts he can't control the balance of sounds coming from those amps, so he would rather they were as quiet as possible, with a mic in front of them going into the PA mix that he is controlling.

Wednesday 15 September 2010

Don't Bring on the Dancing Girls

Vicki Butterfly: actually rather good
One surprisingly underexploited development of the wave of burlesque swamping the capital is the idea of a variety show combining the high-end stripping with music, comedy, magic, whatever. I can only think of about three such nights—we played one at the Marquee Club before it went belly-up after one outing—but we've performed a few times at another and we seem to go down well. I guess there is much of the camp cabaret about The Furbelows, so perhaps such environments are our natural home.

Tickets at this event are notionally £10 and there always seem to be quite a few bodies in there, so I recently broached the delicate subject of payment. The promoter spluttered indignantly (or I imagine he did, as this was all conducted in the Modern Way via email) pointing out how he had all these expenses to cover and few punters paid full price and he often lost money on the whole thing. I'm sure this is all true, but I was struck by the fact that the very first reason he gave for not being able to pay us was the cost of paying the headline burlesque performers, and the others too if they'd had to travel.

So it's important to pay the strippers but inconceivable that one might pay anything to a band of four or five musicians?

I don't know if this is based on convention, assumption or financial value—if you can show that the audience is basically there for the tassels and not the tunes, then fair enough, I suppose—but it seems very strange to me. Is this just another example of how we've mutated into a society that expects music to be free? Admittedly there is no burlesque equivalent to MP3 downloads (well, apart from videos, I guess), so live performance is de rigeur—but then they've been saying for years that music is now all about live performance and that's where the money is. Is it? Where's mine?

I guess to each his/her own, but I'm going to go out on a limb here: I've sat through a lot of burlesque dance acts in the last few years and most of them have been crap. Some of these ladies can't even move in time to music, so don't even score as dancers. There have been a couple of exceptions—Vicki Butterfly (see photo) really knows what she'd doing and has some impressive costumes—and some are saved by the wit of the premise. But the majority just seem to be banking on our being thrilled by the fact that they are taking their clothes off for us.* I'm convinced that most are actually doing it for themselves, as confidence-boosting exercises, and often I'll notice that their audience is mostly other women, presumably there for moral support. Which is all well and good—except when they get paid and I don't. (I'm reminded of the scene in Spinal Tap where they see the billboard outside their gig advertising 'Spinal Tap and puppet show'.)

Or perhaps we need to work out a 'Making Your Mind Up'-style garment ripping routine. Then we can charge promoters if we promise not to do it.

(*Maybe I'm over-rationalising this, but it always seems a bit odd when a performer does a routine, ending up in her knickers and a couple of pasties, then comes back later in the evening and does another one. I mean—we've seen her with no clothes on now, so where's the suspense?)

Monday 13 September 2010

A whole new instrument?

I was ambling along London's South Bank yesterday, which was more than usually busy because of the Thames Festival, and came across a knot of people. From the centre came music, a bit like a steel drum or gamelan. Elbowing small children out of the way to get to the front I found a young, earnestly bearded chap playing something that resembled a cross between a turtle shell and two woks welded together to form a giant lentil. He was tapping it rapidly with his fingers, picking out different notes by striking different spots on the upper domed surface. The resulting sound is actually much purer and smoother than a steel drum—like a bell but also a bit like a harp—and has a dreamy resonance the mesmerising qualities of which were evident by the crowd of slack-jawed onlookers, veritable moths to his flame.

Afterwards I asked him what the instrument was called and he said it was a "hang". That had a sort of south-east Asian ring to it that made sense. I asked him where indeed it came from and he replied, "Switzerland".

Now if you're trying to get your head around the image of an alpine goatherd picking his way through the edelweiss with a small UFO on his back, on his way to steel band practice, think again. There is nothing traditional about the hang—it was invented in 2007 by a company called PANart. As far as I can tell it's basically a steel drum but with the enclosed space forming a Helmholtz resonator (the same principle as when you blow across the top of a bottle). I gather the metal has been nitrided, a hardening that I guess must affect its musical qualities.

Check out this video and you will never look at the pots and pans in your kitchen the same way again.

Tuesday 31 August 2010

Circus vs Cabaret?

The Cross Kings, ancestral home of The Furbelows' own night, the Cirque de Crème Anglaise, suddenly closed down last month, leaving me scrabbling to find a new venue for the two shows I had already booked—not easy when you’re asking for a specific Friday night in the not-too-distant future. I was extremely lucky to have recently fallen in with Ed Saperia, who runs the Salon d’Été club on Duke Street, and Ed was happy to host the Cirque for the 20th August show I had already programmed.

Now, the Cross Kings was always ideal—more so than I realised until I’d lost it (cliché, I know, but there is truth in many of them). Where else could tweedy fops comfortably rub shoulders with pierced crusties? Within its cluttered, homely rooms it had a relaxed bohemian vibe that perfectly suited the light-hearted, untrendy thing we were trying to do, the spirit of a party rather than a nightclub. Many of us shall miss it.

The Salon is a bit of a different proposition. It has a wonderfully central location, along one side of Selfridges, a stone’s throw from Bond Street tube. And once you get past the dark, nameless frontage you suddenly find yourself in an unexpected tropical paradise. The room used to be a church, given away by the tall, distinctive windows at the front. The DJ booth used to be the organ loft, though the organ pipes at the back of the stage are fake—built by the Furbelows' own front man Alex, as it happens. The high vaulted ceiling is actually glazed, and with this in mind Ed and his team filled the place with tall palm trees, hanging baskets of ivy and a living canopy of vines overhead. A machine constantly squirts out mist, partly for the benefit of the plants but also because it creates cool light effects. There is even one huge spotlight (dubbed the “sun”, I noted on the lighting control computer screen) which shines through the mist and the vines in spectacular rays.

From the beginning the idea was to create a much classier environment than the rich-but-tacky Eurotrash club L’Equipe Anglaise downstairs. They wanted an old-fashioned supper club to attract a sophisticated crowd with a vintage dress sense. (In fact the day after the Cirque I also held the New Sheridan Club summer party at the same venue and Luke, another of the men behind the Salon, told me, as he surveyed the party, that this was precisely how they had always envisioned the venue working.)

Now, the Cirque likes a bit of cabaret in the mix. But unlike the swathe of retro burlesque nights, the idea for us is a mixture of cabaret vamp and theatricality with the humorous, lunatic fringe of experimental pop/rock music. Whereas the Salon’s usual musical fare is aimed at creating a recognisably period style, we’re not trying to create something recognisable at all (sometimes not even recognisably music). Moreover, it can get a bit noisy.

To cut to the chase, I think we got away with it. The Salon’s walk-in crowd were doubtless not expecting anything quite like it, but we started gently enough with the wonderful No Cars—the only band so far to play the Cirque more than once. Normally a three-piece they had recently lost another drummer (allegedly she was sacked because she got a boyfriend, but you can never believe anything that lead singer Haruna says on stage). So they had reworked their material for a two-piece, with Haruna and Sachi taking it in turns to bang the drums as well as their usual guitar, bass and vocal chores. I particularly liked Sachi’s bell-laden anklets with which she could tap out the rhythm in a way that was musically surprisingly effective.

As usual the band illustrated their songs with inept cartoons displayed on a music stand. But this time we were also treated to a silent figure in a blank white mask who stood at the back of the stage and swayed to every song, waving a racoon glove puppet on one hand. On the song about tuna, he also produced some cut-out tuna fish on sticks.

The inter-song banter is a key part of any No Cars gig—Haruna plays up the Japanese naïf image, usually claiming to have flown over from Tokyo for that gig and alleging that the band met at school, on a farm or while working as geishas. This time she also insisted that they thought the gig was in North Korea but had been misinformed. Noting that the supper club crowd were getting on with their meals, she offered, “Oh, I see that everyone is eating. I hope we don’t make you puke.”

Next up were the Furbelows. We enjoyed ourselves and I think it went well enough, doubtless dividing the room. I am told that we were rather loud—during soundcheck I saw one waitress jamming her fingers in her ears while a two-piece band were on, so who knows what they made of us. But I did get some positive comments afterwards so I think it was fine, even if, in his stalking and flapping about the stage Alex managed to kick out Neil’s guitar cable—twice.

The Lovely Eggs are a husband-and-wife duo, he playing drums she thrashing guitar and both singing. I love their stuff, sort of playground philosophy set to nursery rhyme melodies; it combines the deceptive (and actually quite profound) simplicity of Talking Heads with tunes that might not be out of place in a football chant but which therefore stick in your head. I can’t understand why they are not bigger. For their song about an olive, Holly came down into the audience and stood on a chair: one of the drunk Japanese party at the table took the opportunity to look up her skirt. Not sure if that means they liked the act or not.

Final act of the night was The Henry Road, a full-on psychedelic rock act. Here, I have to admit, I think we lost the audience. Perhaps at the Cross Kings this would have been just the way to end the evening but for the supper club crowd this was just too Rock, with neither the intimacy or quirkiness of No Cars and The Lovely Eggs.

Ah well, we live and learn, and I am so glad that I got to do a Cirque at this amazing space—not least because it is closing down in a week’s time. I’m told that Selfridges have bought the whole block to develop it. Mind you, there was always a suggestion that the Salon was a “pop-up” club, there just for the summer (there’s a clue in the name), so perhaps some people, at least, always knew it would come to an end now. In any case, it was a noble venture and I sincerely hope the owners bring the same idea alive somewhere else.

Now, where am I going to hold the show I’ve got programmed for 12th November..?

(Thanks to Nick Morgan for the photos)

Thursday 22 July 2010

A tale of two gigs

It's been a relatively quiet time for us recently, but we did have a burst of uncharacteristic energy at the beginning of this month when we played Elysian Nights, at Dirty Dick's on Bishopsgate, and then the Water Rats the very next night. And the two gigs could not have been more different.

The idea behind Elysian Nights is to put on a show combining bands, comedy and burlesque, all with a vaudevillean twist. Given the, ahem, theatrical nature of the Furbelows, this sounds right up our street, and is not dissimilar to the feel of our own Cirque de Crème Anglaise (although I have so far eschewed burlesque—it is everywhere these days and I have seen enough pasties to last me a lifetime). In fact it is also reminiscent of one of the very first gigs we did: a thespian friend of Alex's, who is frankly obsessed with Peter Cook, started up a variety night at the Marquee Club; again, a fun idea combining, comedy, magic, burlesque and rock music. But it was made more complicated by the fact that the whole show was an homage to a (fairly obscure) TV series that Cook made in the 1980s, where Cook played the grumpy, foul-mouthed owner of a club in which a weekly show was taking place. So Alex's friend attempted to remain in character all evening, abusing the customers and telling everyone to f**k off (while presumably inside begging them to stay and make his night a success). Strange. Eventually he broke character and explained what he had been up to, but I think most of the audience left pretty mystified. Anyway, shortly after that the club closed down for the umpteenth time—I think that had actually been the seventh incarnation of the famous venue.

Elysian Nights has no such high-concept pretensions. You get one of the co-hosts doing an acoustic music set and the other one playing comedian MC practising picking on members of the audience, as comedians seem to feel they have to. You get a couple of—as I say, vaguely theatrical—bands and number of women taking their clothes off. But what I think they have done so well is to create a unified flavour to the evening (something I try to do with the Cirque as well). Aside from Alex's girlfriend Sarah (who had rather a heated stand-off with the MC about whether she should move up to the front seats or remain skulking at the back—she refused to be brow-beaten by a clown), not one person had specifically come to see us. I'm fairly sure that many had just come in to see what was going on although, at £10 a ticket, they may have been friends of the naked ladies.* Yet they paid attention, whooped and cheered and I received a number of compliments afterwards so they must have enjoyed the show.

This is the fantasy of being in a band: you play to strangers who love you and become fans. Everyone has a great night and you feel you must be going somewhere.

Sadly the reality is all too often like the gig we played the next night.

The Water Rats is a grand old place. It's technically The Water Rats Theatre Bar if you look at the sign on the front, and is next door to the Grand Order of Water Rats, a charitable association of people in the entertainment business. The performance space is indeed a little theatre stage and has the edge on many venues in that there is a genuine backstage area with access to the stage—pretty rare at our level (you normally "come on stage" by clambering out of the audience). Its musical pedigree is impeccable, having hosted Bob Dylan's UK debut in 1962 and also one of Oasis's first headline gigs. Even now they get some impressive names into that modest space. But in between that the current promoters, Monto (they even insist upon calling it Monto Water Rats), fill in by jamming six or seven bands on in a night.

It's the classic example of dispiriting "promotion". The acts have nothing in common (Monto are seldom even able to tell you in advance who else is playing) so there is no sense of an overall "show" being put together. The idea is that each band brings "their" audience and the promoters hope that this will all add up to enough bums on seats (or shoes on sticky floor) to earn them some money. (Not that the word "promoter" should imply that they promote the event in any way—this is entirely up to the individual bands; there isn't even a single Facebook event or anything like that.) Monto are among the most venal: they make no pretence of even being interested in music, let alone your music. All they ask you—and they keep asking you—is how many people you are bringing. In fact the only reason they asked us to play is that the last time we appeared there we apparently pulled about 18 people, which is frankly quite an achievement for us.

What makes it all the more depressing is that the live music room is separate from the front room with the bar, and during the performances the promoters close the connecting doors. I used to think that this was a noise abatement issue, but in fact they have a DJ playing in there too. (The message being: "Yes, I'm afraid there is a band playing in the next room, folks, but don't worry; we'll just turn up the music in here and you'll never even know they are playing.") They do have TV in the bar showing (silently) what is happening on stage, but on this occasion it was actually tuned to the World Cup.

Well, the long and the short of it is that for the most part our audience consisted of one girlfriend (Mark's this time). A couple of other souls came in for part of the set, but they clearly felt a bit self-conscious, as you have to make a definite decision to leave the pub area and come in there. Quite probably the smallest audience we've ever played to. Even our sound engineer kept nipping out to check the footie score.

Who knows how many of the members or fans of the other six bands might have liked our music if they'd heard it? It may be that they all relished the opportunity not to listen to the other acts, but I feel the layout of the place and the attitude of the promoters encourages this sort of divisiveness. A member of another band even had the audacity to come in only as we were packing up and ask Neil, our guitarist, if he could borrow Neil's instrument (had he just forgotten to bring one? Don't laugh—Alex has actually done that).

In case you're wondering, yes I did see the other bands, or at least until I had to leave to catch the last tube (I don't know how late they went on). In fact as I arrived a solo singer/guitarist was performing to half a dozen of his friends and he personally thanked me from the stage as I came in to watch.

Incidentally, something I learned from one of the Elysian Nights promoters was the story behind the name "Dirty Dick's". Back in the 19th century the basement room, where we were playing, was actually let as accommodation, to a couple. When the wife died (or left, the guy wasn't sure) the man just shut himself away. He kept paying his rent so the landlady left him to it. But when he himself died it was found that he had changed nothing since the day the wife went. Nothing had been cleaned and a thick layer of dust caked every surface (hence Dirty Dick). He had failed to feed the cats, who had died and desiccated—you can still see the mummified animals, along with other detritus, in a display cabinet round the back. Apparently, Charles Dickens heard this tale and based the character of Miss Havisham on it,

True story.

Oh, and I also learned that if the police close off Bishopsgate, the mesh of one-way streets round there collapses completely. After about an hour of puzzling (it was a bit like the Crystal Maze) the closest I could park with a carload of gear was two streets away. Fortunately I was saved by a posse of native bearers, in the form of the other band, The B-Movie Vampires, without doubt the friendliest vampires I have ever met. (Last time we played with them they helpfully painted trickles of blood from the corners of our mouths.)

*By which I mean literally friends of these ladies, not "Friends of the Naked Ladies" in some euphemistic sense, like being a "Friend of Dorothy" or a "player of the pink oboe".

Thursday 10 June 2010

Must the show go on?

Years ago I hatched the idea of having an armchair and a standard lamp on stage: before the band went on, a friend of mine, who frankly had no interest in music at all, would wander on, settle himself down and open a newspaper—which he would continue to read throughout the set. Only after the gig was over would he fold his paper, turn out the light and leave. The idea was to have something which both drew the attention with curiosity and expected meaning and at the same time undermined the idea that anything important or out of the ordinary was happening on stage at all.

Well, the idea amused me. The fact is that what goes on on stage is put on a sort of pedestal; and if you're going to stand on stage you must accept that you are being looked at—and that that is part of the job. How you respond to that is a very personal thing, be it through a cool, slick sneer, outrageous costumes, self-effacing silliness or an attempt to channel whatever the music is about. Or making a point of scarcely moving at all—hell, Miles Davis got away with turning his back on the audience, although possibly that was because he was already Miles Davis.

Another notion was to have two big flip charts on stage: before the performance you can wander among the audience asking them to suggest words at random, which you write down on the pages. Then, when the gig starts, you can turn a page on each flip chart at the beginning of each song. With any luck the random combinations of words will inject whole new perspectives on the songs, in an interactive, found-art sort of way.

The first time we played at The Good Ship in Kilburn we were struck by the enormous rear wall at the back of the stage and the projector that was directed at it. Oddly, I've never seen a band make use of this, but it gave us the idea of having a "Furbelows AGM" gig. Our drummer Mark, who works in the City and probably does this sort of thing for a living, started knocking up a PowerPoint presentation, a couple of slides of which I've included here. Sadly he never completed it, though I'd still like to follow through on this idea.

But the problem with all these on-stage wheezes is that they assume you have the space, equipment and cooperation of the management, promoter and sound guy. The reality is that the world of the Great Unsigned is less like a platform for butterflies to show off their colours and more like a cloud of flies clustering around a dead animal. Some promoters feel they need to process five or six bands a night and you're lucky if you get a meaningful sound check, let alone a chance to arrange pyrotechnics or a hydraulic coffin to spring out of in the first number. And it's amazingly how a stunt can fall flat and undermine you if it's not deftly done.

Years ago, in another band, we'd hired a hand-held strobe light. The idea was that during a particularly moody instrumental break in the set, the engineer would kill all the lights, leaving just our strobe. When the moment came, the singer grabbed the lamp and wove around the stage, playing the light artistically on the other musicians. But the stage lights failed to dim, leaving the effect largely unnoticeable. It turned out the engineer had misunderstood his cue: and as we launched into the next song, then every went pitch black. (I was playing a fretless bass in those days, and I discovered that it is impossible to play in the dark by touch alone…)

I was recently at a show at the newly opened—and rather beautiful—Salon d'Été, upstairs at L'Equipe Anglaise in Duke Street, and there was the ubiquitous dose of burlesque. One performer's backing music cut out 45 seconds in, leaving her with the dilemma of giving up, carrying on without it, or restarting. She did the latter—and at the same point the music cut out again. They managed to get it to work in the end, but you could tell she was simmering with ire. This was Vicki Butterfly, one of the best burlesque performers I've seen (and armed with some extraordinary costumes), but even she was stymied by the fact that if one technical element goes wrong the whole illusory bubble can burst.

Mind you, I think much of it depends on the honesty and conviction of how you do it. We had the mighty Tim Ten Yen at our own Cirque de Crème Anglaise night last month; I'd never seen him perform before and was quite taken. His slick yet mysterious pop songs would stand up perfectly on their own, but he augments this with strange angular dances, jogging, pointing and stretching like David Byrne crossed with Mr Motivator. None of this is explained. On top of that he dresses in a sober suit and tie. What makes it work is that there is not a hint of self-consciousness: this is no stunt, gimmick or fabrication—it's just what he does.

I always enjoy watching Paul Hawkins and Thee Awkward Silences, and you know there will be an eruption of odd costumes, masks and flying cuddly toys (I saw one set where Paul sang the first song with a rubber horse's head over his own; I was later told by a member of the band that Paul is actually allergic to the latex and had to time it carefully to get the mask off before his face swelled up and exploded). This is pretty ramshackle as stage antics go, and I've no idea how much of it is even planned, but again it's so unselfconscious that there isn't really any way it could go wrong.

I suspect that a lot of the time you have to be realistic and accept that you are playing in a pub, with all that that implies. And I also suspect that attempts to fabricate a "stage show" because you feel you're not interesting enough and ought to have one are liable to end in tears and accusations of wankerism. But if you go about it with conviction, honestly expressing whatever it is you are trying to get across to the audience, just as with your music, then you can put in a riveting performance, even in the pokiest, most sticky-carpeted pub.

Friday 21 May 2010

Great origin myths of rock and roll

Following hotly on from yesterday's post (thanks to those who sent me their contributions), the same friend has just emailed with another task.

This one I confess I'm struggling with. He wants album titles (exclusively British ones at that) that are seemingly incomprehensible but have an interesting story behind them. Examples he gives are Disraeli Gears by Cream (apparently a mispronunciation by a roadie of bicycle "derailleur gears") and Pink Floyd's Ummagumma (allegedly slang for sex).

So far I haven't been able to think of anything that quite fits the bill. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts sounds a bit mysterious but is just named after a book. Ogden's Nut Gone Flake is just an imaginary tobacco brand referencing the tradition of keeping one's stash in a tobacco tin.

Although this latter example makes me think that an interesting list for the book might be to gather together all the British song and album titles that are elliptical references to drugs and drug taking—a huge and controversial corpus. (Golden Brown, Brown Sugar, Ebeneezer Goode, erm, Puff the Magic Dragon, etc.)

Or, for something more challenging, how about British songs that make elliptical references to masturbation? I could only think of two off the top of my head—Turning Japanese by the Vapours and Pink Thing by XTC. Oh, and I'm told that Teenage Kicks by the Undertones is also about wanking.

A brief search of the internet, however, also throws up Pump It Up by Elvis Costello, Dancing With Myself by Billy Idol, Blind Vision by Blancmange, St Swithin's Day by Billy Bragg, Desperate But Not Serious by Adam Ant, Far Too Hard by Dead of Alive, Close to Me by The Cure, Every Day I Die by Gary Numan, Hit It by The Beat, Lift Me Up by Howard Jones, Eve's Volcano (Covered With Sin) by Julian Cope, Touching Me, Touching You by Squeeze, Mother Fist by Marc Almond and Sat in Your Lap by Kate Bush. Some of these may need verification…

Incidentally one such online list had a post by someone alleging to be the Undertones' manager, insisting that Teenage Kicks is not about wanking and demanding it be removed from the list. I wonder how much of his time he has to spend doing that.

Any ideas out there for any of these?

Thursday 20 May 2010

Tips for aspiring bands

I mentioned a few posts ago that a friend is writing a book about Rock, and indeed Roll, and wanted ideas for songs about the seasons.

He had another request too: tips for aspiring bands.

Turns out he doesn't want genuinely useful advice, more humorous topical digs. This is the best I could come up with:

1. If in doubt, paint a stripe across your eyes, preferably in a glam metallic colour. And wear a braided military jacket. In short, look just like Adam Ant did 30 years ago. And if you see Adam Ant give him some DJ work—he's broke. (You might want to wear a bullet-proof vest, though, to be on the safe side.)

2. On the other hand, if you want to be taken seriously as an artist, grow a beard. Beards are very in for Serious Rock Artists. It'll also keep your face warm in winter when they cut off your gas.

3. Hire the best graphic designer you can to fabricate some crude personal snaps to put on your personal MySpace page to show that you're a real person trying to keep in touch with your fans. You'll also have to hire someone to run your personal MySpace page.

4. You'll need a blog. RIGHT: "OMG we're on Later With Jools Holland tonight!!! V. nervous but v. excited!" WRONG: "Got off my tits on free Champagne at a party for some record company twats. Kicked a fan in the balls LOL!" There are computer plug-ins that will introduce the right degree of spelling mistakes to make you seem approachable and human. Again, probably best to hire professional to do this.

5. If you're not too sure about your music, make yourself a bizarre costume out of angular bits of cardboard and tinfoil and wear a small birdcage on your head. This will distract attention.

Any other ideas?

There's a Bridgehouse over yonder...

To Canning Town for our second round heat of the Surface Unsigned "battle of the bands" experience. As you may recall, we defaulted through the first round because two bands dropped out. They make it quite easy of course—in the first two rounds fully four out of the six bands playing each night make it through. (Generous of them? Of course not: they need to drag it out so that your multitudinous fans will keep paying to see you in heats.*)

That first round was in the Boston Music Rooms, a sizeable (and consequently fairly empty) joint at Tufnell Park. This time we find ourselves at "The Legendary Bridgehouse 2". You can't help thinking that any venue that actually needs to tell you how mighty is its legend is probably deluding itself. Hell, I haven't even heard of the Bridgehouse 1. (I feel they should have come up with something a bit more inventive, or at least a subtitle—"Bridgehouse 2: The Nightmare Continues", or just "Bridgehouse 2: Bridgier and Housier".)**

You would not believe there is a venue here: it's on a rubbish-blown industrial estate, devoid of humans (apart, I think, from a man selling burgers through an armoured hole in the wall). Even when you find the right building, the venue turns out to be through an unassuming door, past some toilets and up two flights of stairs. (See Mark's photo below of me reaching the venue. I particularly like the flag.)

The weird thing is that once you get in there you can tell someone has spent some money. The room has two bars, a powerful PA and an astonishing light show with lasers and everything (which was apparently switched off while we were playing; story of our lives). They clearly expect trouble, as they have crash barriers along the front of the stage (meaning Alex could not do his usual trick of prowling around the audience during Freak Tornado Blues, so he elected to lie down for the guitar solo instead.) But it's also tiny.

I'm still perplexed about this place. Did it really have a heydey, say in the late 80s acid house scene when there was a drugs factory underneath and the place was the private pleasure dome of the drugs baron? Is it used for discreet industry showcases (in Canning Town, the heart of the music industry...)?

I actually had to nip out after we played first, to deliver some posters to another venue, before returning in time to see the last two bands. At no point in my travels did I see anyone else not connected with the event. I thought I glimpsed a feral dog with a human hand in its mouth, but I may have imagined that...

*(We still didn't get through this round though. I guess they realised they didn't want losers like us cluttering up their competition.)

**(Now that I think about it, it isn't even anywhere near a bridge, unless you count the flyover...)

Sunday 2 May 2010

Bowling for Bloomsbury

To Bedford Way, just off Bloomsbury Square, to the Bloomsbury Bowling Lanes under the Tavistock Hotel. I'd never been there before but I was immediately struck by what a fun place it was. They've done it all up with 50s American bowling imagery and the space is indeed dominated by bowling lanes, though they also do food and have four or five private rooms for lager-fulled karaoke sessions. It was busy and quite buzzing, and I thought, "Oh, good we actually have an audience to play to." Not only that, but a poster in the gents revealed that only the week before the Fun Lovin' Criminals had graced the very stage upon which we were to perform.

I quickly realised, however, that all those people had come there to drink and bowl, not to listen to bands. The stage was in one corner at the foot of the lanes; most of the bowlers ignored us, though I did wonder if they weren't rather annoyed by the noise. Every now and then a punter would step up across the corner of the stage as a short cut to the bar. If you add up the people who were actually listening to the music, you just had the usual handful, almost all of whom were in the five bands performing, plus the odd shaven-headed punter who paused in passing—whether in rapture at the siren sounds or in neanderthal perplexity, I could not say.

Needless to say, it was a bit of a cock-up. I think the promoter told me that the house drum kit had been missing so he'd had to go to another venue to get one. Anyway by the time I rolled up around eight no one had soundchecked. The first band was rushed on, and it was a game of catch-up after that. Our set was trimmed to 25 minutes but seemed to go down well with the audience (i.e. the other bands), and we had the honour of seeing The Teeth, a band that we all independently decided were perfect for the Cirque de Crème Anglaise: come and see them on Friday 14th May!

Strangest of all was the end of the night. I like to make a point of watching the other bands, if only out of courtesy. Immediately after us were a band called "Moses and the…" (I didn't catch the rest) with an intriguing Everley-Brothers-go-Indie sound. Then came Speak and the Spells. I know from listening to their MySpace that they have a kind of surf/garage rock sound, but I never found out in the flesh—after waiting 15 or 20 minutes for them to get ready, fiddling with sounds and effects pedals, occasionally shrugging at the sound man in a what-the-fuck? idiom, while the sound man shrugged back at them in the same way, I gave up and went home.

It was already 11.30 by this time and as I left the bouncers were warning incomers that they were closing in half an hour. I thought to myself that if Speak and the Spells wanted to complete their set they had better get a move on.

Neil, who is the hardiest of the Furbelows and always stays to the end of every gig, sometimes the only person in the audience, tells me that in the end the band were pulled off stage by the bouncers and beaten up. Kind of squalid, but, as Neil observes, kind of rock and roll.

Not all seasons are created equal

A friend of mine contacted me recently because he is writing a book about British "rock and pop" (not quite sure what aspect of it) and wanted to pick my brains about various things.

One of the things he wants to have is a list of songs that evoke the seasons. As you might expect, we found it a lot easier to think of ones about summer than anything else, though if you count Christmas songs as winter songs then there are obviously quite a few of those too. (I think it's a shame that no one seems to make Christmas albums any more, something I think the Furbelows should rectify.) Spring and autumn? Hmm… In fairness, the emphasis here is on evoking a season rather than specifically name-checking it. Though I suspect that can be a very personal—or sometimes accidental—thing. I remember one summer when Seal's first album was all you heard, blasting out of every open window.

Here's the best that I could come up with, bearing in mind that they must all be British artists:

Spring: Perhaps Jack in the Green by Jethro Tull; or Morning Has Broken by Cat Stevens, though I would hate to promote guff like that; or there's the epic, and largely instrumental (it's over 12 minutes long and the words don't start till the rocky bit around 8:50), number April by Deep Purple. It is actually about the month in question—I checked.
Summer: Hot in the City by Billy Idol, Cruel Summer by Bananarama, anything by the Duckworth Lewis Method (for obvious reasons), Summertime by The Sundays (from their obscure, and unsuccessful, 1997 comeback album Static & Silence), or Staying Out for the Summer by Dodgy, which does have a very summery feel.
Autumn: you could try Harvest Festival by XTC (from their 1999 album Apple Venus)
Winter: There's always New Year's Day by U2, but they are Irish not British. Or Winter by the Rolling Stones (from the less well known 1973 album Goat's Head Soup). Of course Sting did recently release an album all about winter…
Christmas: Last Christmas by Wham!, Merry Christmas Everybody by Slade, Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day by Wizzard, and for something more recent Christmas Time (Don't Let the Bells End) by The Darkness.

Got any other ideas?

Thursday 22 April 2010

Is unsigned the new signed?

To Brick Lane, for the Recharged Radio Awards at 93 Feet East. Recharged Radio is an internet station that exclusively plays unsigned bands. We are up for a gong for Gig of the Year for our quarterly Cirque de Crème Anglaise event. When I get there I discover that one of the four finalists for Best Gig Photograph is actually a photo of The Furbelows, taken by Nick Morgan (the same one that I use for my Blogger ID, in fact). Sadly it has been pinned up on its side, for some reason, but I'm sure that didn't influence the judges.

There seems to have been a groundswell of sites, services and outlets for unsigned bands—plus the innumerable Battle of the Bands competitions, in several of which we seem to be embroiled at any one time. I'd be curious to know if the actual number of bands has increased, or whether it's just that, with the growth in illegal downloading and the punters' general unwillingness to part with money in exchange for music, the distinction between signed and unsigned is increasingly irrelevant. (And wily entrepreneurs realise they can make more money from bands' aspirations than they can by fulfilling those aspirations and selling records to the public.)

Certainly the norm now seems to be that bands just "release" their own records. I'm forever finding myself at "single" or "album" launches (such as the excellent Paul Hawkins and Thee Awkward Silences last Saturday at the Brixton Windmill). These are essentially pub gigs with a rickety table from which you can buy CDs the price of which is written in marker pen on a scrap of paper.

And why not? Some time very soon I hope to finish a batch of Furbelows recordings and then I plan to put together a CD of 15 or so numbers. I don't think I'll have them manufactured—probably just run them off myself. In this I am partly motivated by some cool CD blanks I've found which look just like black vinyl records, complete with faux grooves and a small "label" section in the middle that you can print on to. OK, little things please little minds.

Then we can have a launch party.

We didn't win anything at the Recharged Radio Awards, but it was nice to be nominated. They are doing a great thing and I find the station a lot of fun to listen to—because it's nice not to know what you are going to hear next. They keep adding new shows, so listen in some time: you may hear them playing something by The Furbelows...

Wednesday 17 March 2010

Awesome rack, dude

To Camden, to see 50-Foot Woman at Tommy Flynn's. Supporting them were a rather prog-tinged band whose name I confess I can't recall. I think I was aware of the guitarist changing instrument at some point but it was not until after their set was over that I realised how much, frankly redundant, axe capacity they had had on stage—two band members came nudging their way through the crowd carrying a steel rack with a least three guitars on it (OK, not quite as many as the one pictured here, but you get the point). Shortly after that they came through again carrying another rack with at least three basses on it. I'm sure I don't remember the bass player switching planks during the set, but perhaps I was just not paying enough attention. Surely I would have heard the difference, though? Afraid not.

I used to play a set with a band called The Peaches where I would switch from fretted to fretless bass halfway through, play a few numbers, then switch back. I would have thought the difference between the two would justify the change (as opposed to, say, switching from one model of fretted bass to another). But I remember one gig when, as I unplugged one instrument and plugged in the other, one of the singers (the band was fronted by twin sisters) said, "There will be now be a brief pause while Clayton changes bass."

Some wag called out, "Why?"

And I realised that if he had to ask then I couldn't really answer.

I think it's fine to do all manner of finessing the sound if you want to, but if it holds up the show then it probably isn't worth it. After all, the vagaries of the PA and the room—and the competence and attitude of the sound guy—are going to make far more difference.

As for the rack, it did make me think that maybe I should have a couple of roadies to carry my tie rack on and off stage. Perhaps a hatstand too.

Tuesday 16 March 2010

Putting the "hard" into hardware

What is it about drum hardware that makes it so unpleasant to carry?

Being the only member of the band with wheels, I spend a lot of my time humping chromed lumps from my car to the venue to the car and back into my attic, which is the only place in my crowded house where I can keep them.

Calculating exactly how many flanged, threaded and knurled items of ironmongery you can carry in one hand while climbing up and down a ladder makes you highly aware of this primordial fact: however sensible your grip seems to be when you pick one of these things up, before you are halfway to wherever you are carrying it it will be pinching a finger or pressing painfully on some knobbly protrusion you didn't even know you had till then. It sounds trivial, I know, but it's really weird how universal this is. It's not the weight—it's the almost sentient ability to seek out your most vulnerable pressure points.

Serious drummers know this, of course, and keep all their hardware in coffin-like cases. But without a van to put it in (I have to thread individual stands among the seats at the back of my car), or indeed anyone to help me carry stuff most of the time, this is but a distant dream.

In the meantime, why don't manufacturers built these things with handles?

Saturday 27 February 2010

Once again, a road death works in our favour

To Tufnell Park for a first-round heat in the Zimbalam Surface Unsigned Festival '10. I know that sounds like a random string of words generated by a computer virus, but it's essentially another of these "battle of the bands" competitions. In what sense it is a "festival", I don't know, but it is well organised on a nationwide scale, with the finals at the IndigO2 at the O2 in London. We won't make it that far, of course, because the whole thing is based around votes, and the votes primarily come from the fans that you bus in to support you—all of whom are buying tickets, so you can see how the business model works. The reason they have so many rounds is that your "fanbase" must turn up repeatedly to vote you along, coughing up for tickets each time.

So, yes, it is cynically exploiting the dewy hopes and dreams of the Great Unsigned, but one becomes rather inured to this after a while. We probably shouldn't have entered, not least because you have to pay a deposit which we promptly lost because we didn't sell enough tickets in advance. (In fact we brought precisely two people, one of whom—my wife—forgot to vote for us.)

However, we still managed to make it through to the next round. The system was that seven bands play on the night and the highest-scoring four go through to the next round. But on this occasion three of the bands pulled out at the last moment, so we all went through anyway, making for a very gentlemanly atmosphere at the sparsely occupied venue.

Gruesomely enough, the promoter mentioned that the cancellations were due in part to "death and road accidents". I'm assuming that it was just one death, in connection with a road accident, rather than a whole week of Final Destination-esque carnage.

Bizarrely, we have been here before. The Furbelows have previously been offered a gig at short notice because the bass player of the band originally booked had been killed in a car crash. I hope some awful pattern is not developing here. Eventually people will refuse to appear on a bill with us, such is the notoriety of our Spinal-Tap-drummer style curse.

If we were a death metal band I suppose it would be ideal. I wonder if you can sell a curse on to someone who might appreciate it more...

Down and out with the Great Unsigned

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!