Thursday 24 May 2018

My increasingly uneasy relationship with music (and other reasons I am not a Rock Star)

I’ve been writing about music a lot lately (in case you hadn’t noticed) which isn’t really surprising since I occasionally describe myself as a failed musician. The truth is I never really tried to make it. I’m not sure if it was fear of failure, crippling self-doubt or that my father was right when he called me ‘bone idle’, but I never actually dragged myself away from my beloved Devon and seriously tried to make a career of fucking about with guitars.

Me at sixteen, still pretty sure I was going to make a living from that guitar
(the same one I still play every weekend)

Sometimes I regret this - but that’s the nature of mid-life crisis (or ongoing personal emergency as Tim Dowling calls it). In the wake of last week’s mental health awareness week I found myself wondering whether that bone-idleness wasn’t in fact a debilitating mental illness? (It's okay, I've been reading a lot of Matt Haig recently and have self-diagnosed as lazy shit with a side order of grumpy twat.) I certainly spent most of my teenage years self-medicating for one. In my forties I am still too scared it might be true to go and do anything about it, and last weekend’s cider-based self-medication in the sunshine was much too enjoyable not to continue with.

My ongoing personal emergency should probably involve my giving up playing music I don’t like to people I don’t respect every weekend. Every cover-band poster I see of grizzled ‘mature’ musicians gurning against a brick wall in ill-fitting jeans and unfunny t-shirts kicks my self-loathing into over drive and my heart yearns to sell all my instruments and just stop. I probably look no better. The audience don’t know I’ve been doing this since I first put on a cassock and joined a choir, and my arthritic fingers ensure I play just as badly as the guys who just took it up at forty. I should stick to the writing.

Seriously, if we look anything like this tell me and you can have all my guitars
Apologies if this is your band, I'm sure you're great

Music still has an indefinable magic however. Its ability to conjure memories long forgotten, its inextricable link with the past, unlocking all the best and worst parts of your youth. It is a common complaint among people of my age that there is nothing new anymore, all the good music's been done, etc. etc. To an extent this is true, but it always has been. There is only so much you can do with 11 notes and the odd micro-tonal aberration. The difference is that you can only hear that descending I-V-IV chord sequence at the beginning of The Who's 'Baba O'Riley' for the first time once. I first heard it on Aerosmith's 'Angel' but the effect was the same. It's a pretty common chord sequence, but 'Baba O'Riley' seems to execute it best. If I could wipe anything from my mind it would be that intro, just so I could experience those crashing piano chords effortlessly making sense of the trance-like synth loops for the first time again. It is indelibly linked in my head with a sunny afternoon in June 1992 when I first played it from a Best of the Who album I had been bought for my 15th birthday.

Songs do that, they remind you of a time. I cannot hear anything from the first two Oasis albums without being transported back to the All Seasons in Bideford in the mid 90s. The specifics of that time are blurred with alcohol and class As, but that feeling of being young, able to do anything and having plenty of time ahead to do it swells up with every boring, whiny, nasal verse. I am not a fan of the music, but I cannot help but smile as I turn the fucking radio off.

A brief refrain of long-forgotten Europop will flicker by as you trudge through the shops, the Vengaboys assuring you that they like to party, they like, they like to party. Despite the utter pointlessness of this song, the fact that it is without substance, unable to produce genuine emotions on its own merit is of no matter. It could make you smile at the memory of a shared eye-roll. Joy at a meeting, a spark kindled, an awkward first dance in a shit-awful night club. Not the endless drag of the painful breakup, the price they extracted from your soul over your time together. That all came later, the music only recalls that first burst of excitement.

Any overheard melody, drifting from a window on a summer's night can leave you with a sense of indefinable contentment. It may just sound a bit like something else you can't remember, it might be a song you once knew and have long forgotten. You may not consciously be able to place the reason, but your medulla oblongata knows. It remembers, it transmits serotonin in reaction.

This was what I was going to do, provide a brief moment of joy at a memory inextricably caught up in something I wrote. It took me a very long time to realise that I write terrible lyrics, and am a mediocre singer at best. I can do the odd killer riff, and had my ego allowed me to collaborate with somebody else, and the music industry been willing to centre itself in rural North Devon it might have worked out. Who knows, maybe one day somebody will be reminded of 'Fuck Me Gently With A Chainsaw' and be lost in happy reminiscence.

I was good with these guys – because Maz wrote all the songs (I know this one's a cover)

There is still no better feeling than jamming a plectrum into a set of steel strings and hearing the screaming beast it unleashes from the overdriven amplifier at the other end. I am as excited by it now as I was when I first sellotaped a microphone to my dad's acoustic guitar and cranked the volume. But with mid-life comes self-awareness (mostly out of fear that the crisis will make you do something really stupid) and while, when I was a kid, I never understood why my father wasn't that bothered about the whereabouts of tapes featuring his own adolescent foray into being a musician, now, I find I have no idea where all the tapes of my own awful teenage angst-ridden ballads are.

I understand his ambivalence. My new greatest fear is finding them and having to listen.

I did manage these 27 minutes of music which I am unjustifiably proud of in my long musical lack-of-career

I always used to blame the decisions (many, various and too boring to go in to here) that led to my never making a go of it on the women in my life at the time I made them. I have finally grown up enough to realise that they didn't force me into anything – didn't even ask me not to, it was just that I was making huge, life-changing decisions with an organ that I can no longer rely on to tell me if I need a piss.

I have long since admitted that the greatest love affair of my life is with the county I was brought up in and have lived in since I was five years old. Devon. The reason for not giving it all up for music and a free electric band (other than the usual fear of failure and galloping anxiety) was my unwillingness to leave this place, with its hills, its moors, its coastline, its well-meaning-despite-the-casual-racism indigenous population. Sitting in my garden now, writing this while looking over the fence at Dartmoor, lazily dominating the horizon as it does from pretty much anywhere inside a twenty mile radius I regret nothing.

Had I made any of at least five key decisions differently my life would undoubtedly have wandered off down another leg of the trousers of time. I might have gone on to have a proper musical career (and no doubt be dead of a drug overdose by now) or done what so many others of my generation have, gone and had a proper career up in 'that London' then come back to breed with a nice middle-class girl named after some obscure plant that sounds like a venereal disease who can do her made-up and unimportant job (this is not rampant sexism, my own job is made-up and unimportant, as I have no doubt the proper career in 'that London' would have been) from home now.

What definitely wouldn't have happened would have been the many coincidences, drunken decisions, and stupid ideas that have led to this exact point in my life. I would probably never have met my wife, or her kids. Would not have spent time with the many pets I have gone through in the last twenty years. Would not live in this insane little town I love in a house I adore. Probably wouldn't be as happy.

Tuesday 1 May 2018

I'm Not A Fan

I'm Not A Fan

The only time you'll find me spinning around is on the dancefloor, though come to think of it, just being in my presence will make you instantly cooler, so maybe I am.

Fan, short for fanatic: –

(informal) a person who is extremely interested in something, to a degree that some people find unreasonable

(disapproving) a person who has very extreme beliefs that may lead them to behave in unreasonable or violent ways

Not admirable qualities right? Those with the patience of a toddler who hungrily pre-order every release from their favourite band/author/movie franchise/crockery creator etc. The people who camp out in the streets to be first to get the new shiny thing/tickets for band that should have stopped touring thirty years ago/a look at a posh baby. The one-upmanship of those desperate to be first, who fuel the ebay sales with 500% markups of things that will be easily available at a huge discount in a few short weeks time (hi record store day friends). Handy for a certain sector of consumer capitalism that relies on blind hero-worship and impatience though.

Once upon a time I did pre-order books, movies and records to get them at full price on release day, then pore over them for days until I knew every part of them. Now I know if I leave it a bit, I can probably get them for less than half the price when those early adopters have finished, and it has been a long time since I read anything twice (although that is more to do with my fear of dying before I have managed to get through the mountainous to-read pile next to my bed – which is quite likely to be the cause of that death).

This isn't some smug money-saving tip like the millionaire fashion icon 'oh I get all my stuff from charity shops' might give you in order to fuck up the chances of anybody else ever getting a bargain again. It's because that deadly to-read pile has sibling to-watch and to-listen-to piles and the last thing I pre-ordered was still sitting around unread by the time I first saw it as a 99p kindle special offer. It's really just me: getting old leaves a lot less time to laze about consuming pop culture. I have had The Last Jedi DVD sitting on my shelf for nearly a fortnight now, and am starting to regret paying full price – cheapskate twat that I am.

This is how I will die – although not in such a hideous shirt

It's the competitive nature of fandom that will always confuse me. Those who, when I mention that I quite like band A, will immediately tell me 'I've seen them live,' with a smug face as if buying a freely available ticket in accordance with market forces is some kind of achievement. The tracking down of rare bootleg recordings did indeed used to be a difficult game, the sense of achievement could be earned, until you removed the treasured tape-of-a-tape-of-a-tape-of-a-tape from its photocopied cover and played a crackly, not-quite-as-good-as-the-officially-licensed-live-recording-from-another-date version of a song that should make you question your life choices. Being smug about owning a rare record these days is just being smug about having a lot of money and a discogs account, before it was a sign of having way too much time (also money) on your hands.

In my youth I did indeed bow down to the gods of rock. Until I learned to play well, write killer riffs (spoiler: they may not have been that killer) and understood how it all falls into place. I had no time for contemporary heroes – Kurt Cobain, Thurston Moore, Graham Coxon, Bernard Butler – the grunge-lords and britterati. But the ancient titans of rock – Jimi Hendrix, Ritchie Blackmore, Alvin Lee, Jerry Garcia – still held a certain magic: even once I had read biographies pointing out just how spoiled, twatty and broken most of them really were. But then I got older, I came into real life contact with a few actual rock stars in the course of my apathetic failed musical career and they lost their glitter. I still love the songs, but their creators are no more to me than craftsmen doing a job. Love the song, not the singer.

With that realisation I stopped with the envy, and the contempt and all the other vague, bitter stirrings from my artistically unfulfilled heart that I aimed at the unworthy contemporary chart toppers. Truly blinkered fans – you know the ones, they'll tell you 'Octopus's Garden' and 'Maxwell's Silver Hammer' are just as good as the overwhelmingly excellent finale of Abbey Road, that Titus Alone is every bit as brilliant as Titus Groan, that Star Wars movies aren't just jolly adventures for kids (they are, and that's why they're great), the kind who think Tusk and Physical Graffiti should not have been single albums without all the shit on, who want to hear David Gilmour do his non-Pink-Floyd material live and didn't cancel their Amazing Spiderman subscriptions when Dr Octopus took over as Spidey – never get to this realisation. Their religious fervour for their idols is truly terrifying. I have friends who, if I were so inclined, I could drive to tears with a pithy take-down of their favourite Green Day album. People whose entire identities are so entwined with their obsessions that to lose one is to lose the other entirely.

'Sheldon, you didn't have a personalityyou just had some shows you liked'

Separating art from artist becomes increasingly necessary in the current environment – especially if you're a bit of a lefty and you like Morrissey: like most Morrissey fans. You can try and draw a line and say you only like his work up until the point he became an awful racist cunt, but I think he may always have been an awful racist cunt. Also 'Spent The Day In Bed' is a fucking great song. So are 'Cat Scratch Fever', 'Rock and Roll part 1', 'Rooftops' and 'Jake the Peg' and I will still listen to them however cuntish their creators.

Difficult people can write great music and if you didn't know the terrible crimes of the artist you wouldn't care. Bowie and Jimmy Page both slept with underage girls (consensually, as far as I am aware, which is a crucial difference) but we're all still very happy to listen to their music. Phil Collins was always a massive tax-dodging tory but... okay, only tax-dodging tories like Phil Collins – same goes for Gary Barlow. But there are fans who are devastated when the ideals of their idols fail to align with their own.

Kill your idols, believe in nothing but yourself, your false religion will ultimately disappoint you. Believe in the music, for it shall set you free, worship the power of the instrument in your hand to change the world, for this machine kills fascists.

Love the art, fuck the artist.

Tuesday 20 March 2018

That Facebook 10 albums thing that everybody's been doing

10 all time favourite albums over 10 days. Albums that really made an impact and are still on your playlists, even if only now and then.
Post the cover, no need to explain and nominate a person each day with each album to do the same.

Well, that's not hard at all, ten is loads isn't it?

Yeah right.

If we are friends on Facebook then you will have seen this cropping up a lot over the last couple of weeks (I know it should have been ten days but there were alcohol-related gaps).

A lot of people have been doing it, and most cannot resist the urge to explain. I am no different, but I'm utilising a loophole and putting it all here in a very self-indulgent blog. Sorry if you were hoping for something more Russia-related and relevant.

It turned out to be an impossible ask to get my favourite albums down to ten, and I spent a good two days writing and rewriting and changing my mind about the list. I got it down to 30, but none of those ended up in the final ten. I added extra rules for myself, changed the goalposts. It didn't help, so I ended up picking stuff I like pretty much at random. If I did it again now they'd all be completely different.

At no point do any of the records that I routinely quote as my favourite appear, and only one of my rolling roster of answers to the question 'What's your favourite band?' made it. There's no Led Zeppelin, no Jimi Hendrix, no Beatles, no Queen, no Rolling Stones, no Sex Pistols, no Clash, no Frank Zappa, no Captain Beefheart, no Lou Reed, no Doors, no Skynyrd, no Creedence, no Mahavishnu Orchestra, not a single acoustic singer-songwriter (Cat Stevens, Bob Dylan, Suzanne Vega, Carole King, all missing). No Folk, no Jazz, you get the picture.

And I forgot Stoned Age Man by Joseph completely – fuck...

So without further ado, here's those ten albums.

Come An' Get It – Whitesnake

When I was ten, I got a ghetto blaster for Christmas. Mum and Dad asked me what music I liked so they could buy me a tape to play on it. I said Whitesnake, expecting to get a copy of 1987 (because as far as I knew they had only done the one album, and I loved 'Still of the Night' despite being too young to understand the delicate nuance of David Coverdale's metaphors).

Being canny with their money, they found this album in a bargain bin and got it for me instead. My brief disappointment at not having 1987 (it's okay, Dad bought it for me in the January sales) was dissipated as soon as the massive intro riff of the title track started. I had not heard proper 70s pomp rock before. Mum and Dad listened to classical music, Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and very occasionally The Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel, and you never got Alice Cooper on Saturday Superstore (pretty sure I once saw Motorhead on the 8:15 from Manchester though, or it might have been Number 73), so I had been denied the joy of overdriven Hammond organs.

The sheer naughtiness of David Coverdale singing 'Baby you can kiss my arse, yes indeed,' was enough to turn my ten year old brain on to screamy, open-shirted, velvet-flared-high-kicking rock. Without this album I might never have bothered with Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Mountain, Edgar Winter or any of the other bands I didn't put on this list but should have.

Easter – Patti Smith Group

International Women's Day popped up while I was doing this and I noticed that my original list was a massive sausage-fest. I had yet another reshuffle and threw this in.

As a teenager I spent a lot of time buying old vinyl records from market stalls and second hand shops – because I couldn't afford new tapes. I mostly had to judge everything by its cover (hence all my Grateful Dead and Incredible String Band albums) since I had rarely heard of any of it. Obviously this striking woman's nipply vest cried out to my testosterone soaked mind and I had to buy it. Also it had 'Rock and Roll Nigger' on it, and I loved the Byrdland (who?) version of it already.

From the crashing opening of 'Till Victory' right to the haunting menace of the title track it is a tour de force of energy, beauty and awesome. More immediately accessible than the waking dream of Horses, and thus a better gateway to the high priestess of punk poetry. Horses took me longer to get, and if I had bought it first I might never have bothered with any more Patti Smith records. Which would have been a mistake.

Snuffsaidbutgorblimeyguvstonemeifhedidn'tthrowawobblerchachachachachachachachachachachayou'regoinghomeinacosmicambience – Snuff

If you did your teenage years in the early 90s and were into music that didn't get played on the radio then you needed friends with record collections. I had a few of them, and Jim 'Don't Call Me Lofty' Brameld was one of the best. I would spend school lunchbreaks in his study where he played me the Sub-Humans, Dead Kennedys, Lard, DOA, Chumbawamba (before THAT song ruined them) and Snuff (who I had said I was a fan of because I once read their name in a skateboard mag). The massive guitars and frenetic drumming were perfect for a 14 year old buried deep in 70s punk music and paved the way for a later obsession with the Descendants, Rancid and NOFX. I thought I had worn my tape of it out with excessive play, but then I replaced it with a vinyl copy and it turns out the production is incredibly underwhelming – exercise your rights to excessive equalising. (The same applies to Metallica's And Justice For All...)

King of Rock – Run DMC

Hip-hop is divisive. Always has been, and amazingly there are still cocks out there who do the 'Rap is spelled with a silent C' joke. Twats. We were a lot more tribal when I was a kid, so being into Rock music I claimed not to like rap – even convinced myself it was true. It wasn't, I loved the Beastie Boys first album (like everybody did) but it took Run DMC to cement it. Big guitar riffs, check, memorable hooks, check, vocal acrobatics, check. Everything good about music is on this album. It took the changing attitude of the late 90s for me to come out as someone who enjoyed more than one kind of music. It felt good, and it is hard to believe how solid the battle lines were before that.

Against The Grain – Rory Gallagher

I had seen pictures of Rory Gallagher in magazines, I had read about how important he was, I had fallen deeply in love with his 1961 Stratocaster, but never heard him. We had no internet, I had little money for records and didn't know anybody that listened to him already. Then, when I was about 16, I was flicking through the new in section at Discovery Records in Bideford (now moved to Barnstaple, and still hosted by the greatest Record Shop owner I have ever known, Matthew 'Top Hat Matt' Poulton) when a familiar guitar appeared in the drifts of Rumours and Brothers In Arms. My heart skipped a beat and it went in the haul. I got it home, stuck it on, and with the opening riff of 'Let Me In,' I realised that I had been right to be in love with that Stratocaster for so long. It turned out that Mr Furness, my A Level Economics teacher, was also a big fan, which led to a lot of record swapping, the discovery of good Jazz via John Etheridge and Wes Montgomery, and a disappointing C in Economics.

An Electric Storm – The White Noise

During the 90s I began to realise that electronic music was okay after an out of body experience involving some stairs and an Orb album while staying with my Canterbury cousins. My friend Julian (who I had previously thought only listened to Kate Bush and The Sisters Of Mercy) managed to track down a copy of this record he had been looking for forever. He sat me down and made me listen to it, and everything changed. Wild electronica from Delia Derbyshire out of the BBC Radiophonic workshop, stories of the sounds of wild orgies being recorded by having an actual orgy. Tales of people committing suicide to the last track, rumours of it being banned. I have no idea how many of these things are true, but I became fixated with the tape of it Julian did for me. I've since replaced it with an original pressing on Island, a CD and a backup reissue somewhere. It's that important to me.

Straight??!! – The Dogs D'Amour

I love the Dogs D'Amour. They are probably the reason for my mildly eccentric dress sense. I should really have put Errol Flynn in here as it was the first Dogs album I got (taped off my mate Paddy who found them first) or the eponymous 1988 EP that I played more than any other. But Straight??!! has a special place in my heart.

A long time ago I went to a birthday party, a friend's girlfriend. Said friend borrowed the band's guitar to play a song in the break. It was supposed to be for the girlfriend. He spotted me, and remembered my claim that 'Back on The Juice' had the best opening of any song ever. So he played me 'Back on the Juice', the girlfriend had never even heard of the Dogs D'Amour. He did not play any other songs.

I like to think it went some way to that girlfriend eventually marrying me instead (she still hates the Dogs D'Amour though).

Meet The Residents – The Residents

Scanning the shelves at Discovery one Saturday morning I saw an album by the Residents. I recalled that I really liked their song, 'Left of the Dial' so I bought it and took it home. That album was Whatever happened to Vileness Fats? and it did not have 'Left of the Dial' on it. That's because 'Left of the Dial' was by The Replacements. A second rate, instantly forgettable, American college rock band.

The Residents particular brand of batshit insane avant-gardism left me bemused, confused and intrigued. I went back the next week and more had turned up, including Meet The Residents with its defaced Beatles cover. I bought the lot and forced myself to keep listening. It took a while to get but once I got it there was no turning back. This wouldn't happen now, in a world of quick fix online listening I wouldn't have accidentally bought the wrong record, or bothered to keep on listening until they became the one answer to the question 'What's your favourite band?' to make this list. I'd have found the wanky song about radios and gone on listening to bland crap forever. God bless my shitty memory and second hand record shops.

Hearts – I Break Horses

Honestly, I think I put this record in because my list lacked women, and needed something a bit more modern. Still desperately trying to look cool in my 40s. That's not to say that it's not worthy of the list. I was entranced and obsessed with this record from the first moment I heard 'Winter Beats' on 6 Music. I'm a sucker for a massive throbbing analogue synth drone, and this is the best example out there, it's utterly sublime. I played it endlessly during the first few months of 2012 driving back and forth to rehearse with Maz Totterdell's band and it is now irrevocably linked with that very happy period of my life. It's a special record and I still grin from ear to ear every time it comes on (I mostly listen to music from an mp3 player on shuffle these days). Does it deserve to be on this list at the expense of Weezer's Blue album though?

Open Up And Say ...Ahh! – Poison

This is another moment of throwing off years of repression. (I've written about the trouble with music snobbery before here). So much of being a teenager is trying to make sure you like the right things, and that nobody thinks you like the wrong things. Being consistent in your image was all. (I can admit now what a pretentious little prick I was when I was 14 – can you?) My brief dalliance with Poodle Rock in the late 80s/early 90s was thrown away once I discovered Punk. I got rid of all my Metal albums (except Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, Anthrax et al – they were practically punk) and cut all ties with spandex, perms and widdly nonsense. Since then I have stopped giving a fuck what people think, embraced Motley Crue, welcomed back Whitesnake, Def Leppard, Faster Pussycat, Van Halen, and the most shameful of them all – Poison.

Two-tone permed hair, eyeliner, cowboy boots, leather trousers, and Bret Michaels looking like the most beautiful creature I had ever seen – while being a man. Stupid throw away songs about girls and having (nothin' but) a good time with excessive show off stunt guitar solos. All utterly unforgiveable in an early 90s of earnest plaid-clad grunge, even though 'Every Rose Has Its Thorn' was the first song most of us learned how to play on guitar.

But all so fucking awesomely cool – oh the shame of it.

It's not shameful now, kids today don't define themselves by one kind of music. The 16 year old drummer in Carnivala told me he liked 'Your Mama Don't Dance' when I was driving him to a gig a couple of years ago. I expected scorn of the kind I received at school, and some snobby shit about Loggins and Messina. Times have changed, times are better, I can wear my cowboy boots with pride.

So, come on CC, pick up that guitar and talk to me....

*For your delectation, here's a massive list of stuff that got cut before I hit the final ten. There's a lot of it and it could easily be four times this.

Catch Bull At Four – Cat Stevens
Lifebringer – Zervas and Pepper
Last Scream of the Missing Neighbours – DOA with Jello Biafra
Exile On Main Street – The Rolling Stones
Thick as a Brick – Jethro Tull
Skid Row – Skid Row
Queen 2 or Queen, or News of the World, or Sheer Heart Attack – Queen
Radio 1 – The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Sleepwalking – Kingmaker
Pendulum - Creedence Clearwater Revival
Flogging a Dead Horse – Sex pistols
Desire – Bob Dylan
Fountains of Wayne – Fountains of Wayne
Blue Album – Weezer
Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy – The Who
Flat, Baroque and Berserk – Roy Harper
Love It To Death – Alice Cooper
Alive! - Slade
God Shuffled His Feet – Crash Test Dummies
Flood – They Might Be Giants
How to Make Friends and Influence People – Terrorvision
Led Zeppelin 1-4 inclusive
Black Sabbath vol. 4 – Black Sabbath
Piper At The Gates Of Dawn – Pink Floyd
Little Earthquakes – Tori Amos
Suzanne Vega – Suzanne Vega
Let It Be – The Beatles
Powerage – AC/DC
Bongo Fury – Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart
Give 'Em Enough Rope – The Clash
Van Halen – Van Halen
Second Helping – Lynyrd Skynyrd
Crises – Mike Oldfield
Harvest – Neil Young
Peace Sells But Who's Buying? - Megadeth
Inflammable Material – Stiff Little Fingers
Landscape – Landscape
Penguin Eggs – Nic Jones
Lovesexy – Prince
Skeletons From the Closet – The Grateful Dead
Volunteers – Jefferson Airplane
Gorilla – The Bonzo Dog Doo Da Band
Back in the DHSS – Half Man Half Biscuit
and on and on and on and on

Sunday 4 March 2018

Some rather more helpful things that I have learned in four decades of singing in front of people for money

As I mentioned in my last blog (which I have been told was unhelpful and had a misleading title) I have an average at best voice which has been forced into the spotlight out of necessity. This was brought into very clear focus last night when the lead vocalist of one of my bands couldn't make it and I was once again thrust into the singing spot. At least it gave me an excuse for the music stand full of lyrics I had (I've used one for the last twelve years of acoustic duo Rob and Dave, despite rarely adding new material, and make no excuses for never having cared enough to learn the words). Lyric learning tip, run through the words in your head (keep the words out of sight, just check you're doing them right occasionally) while you're doing something entirely mundane like walking to work or washing dishes and they stick easily. I haven't bothered, but I used to care enough to.

I know, I used this photo last time as well, but I honestly can't think of any better one to use

In light of last night's near-disaster, I figured the best thing I could do is share what little I have learned over the years in hopes that it helps others who don't want to sing but find they have to. As opposed to the self-indulgent snark of my last piece, sorry.

The first piece of advice I can give anybody is know your range and stick to it. If you can't get to the note you are aiming for it will both sound rubbish (somewhere I have a recording of an eighteen year old me trying to hit the chorus of Self-Esteem by The Offspring which demonstrates this to great effect) and destroy your voice. I was reminded of this while screaming American Woman by the Guess Who last night and then having to croak the rest of the set: I really should have practised the songs earlier in the day. If your band are dicks and won't change the key to a more comfortable one then drop the song, do something else. Then remind your fuckwit guitar player that people only listen to the singer anyway.

This leads nicely into the obvious one, practice. Practice a lot, and at full volume. I don't. If I practice at all then I tend to do it mumblingly and about an octave lower than I'd do the song live (unless I am in the car, and then it is both loud, out of tune, and probably the best workout my voice ever gets these days). Hence all the trouble with The Guess Who. You can go for stuff outside of your range when you practice, since increasing that range is a good thing (though less likely to work the older you are, sorry) and nobody is there to hear you miss those notes.

Inhibition is your enemy. Have none, fear nothing and don't worry about being embarrassed. I should have curled up in a ball and died a few times last night, since trying to play John Entwistle bass lines and sing at the same time is a very good way to not be able to do either. By manfully singing all the wrong notes and fluffing the bass lines (lot of root notes, really a lot) I got through it and, depressingly as always, nobody in the audience even noticed I had fucked it up. That's how little they care, just go for it. It is both terribly sad, and incredibly useful that even when they're paying attention they can't tell when you get it wrong.

Learn an instrument so you can accompany yourself. Singing along to records with a voice already there as reference is no good for getting your tuning ear going. Karaoke machines with flashing words don't help you develop your sense of timing. Learn to read music, understand intervals, scales, keys and dynamics. Your voice is an instrument every bit as hard to master as any other. The more you use it, the better it gets. But you can't get to the fiddly mechanical bits if you break it and you can't buy a new one: if it hurts, stop and do it differently. (From the guy who tried to fix a completely knackered larynx with 3 pints of cider and a marlboro light last night – do as I say, not as I do. In my defence, it worked in time for War Pigs).

Take lessons, really. I know I don't, and am always claiming to be self taught, and may have taken the piss out of you for having lessons, but that's because of my selective memory. While it's true I never had a lesson, a solid ten years or so of choir practice and GCSE music does give you an advantage. And is, in fact, comprised mainly of singing lessons that I have pretended not to have taken. This will also help to increase your range – in a much safer way than trying to scream as high as Ronnie James Dio.

Up above the streets and houses, Rainbow flying high...

Finally, stand up. Really, don't ever sing sitting down, and not just because it scares people into thinking there's going to be a key change when you stand up. It constricts the diaphragm, stops you being able to access your lungs properly and makes you look like a dick. If your back is so fucked that you can't support yourself anymore, get a stool so you're still upright or find something to lean against.

Be aware that none of this is approved by any actual singing teachers. These are just things I have noticed over the course of my accidental singing career. If you follow them then you too can manage to achieve mediocrity. In case you think this is all just false modesty, check out the massively multitracked vocals on this track I recorded a year or so ago.

Saturday 17 February 2018

A Few Things I Have Learned Over Four Decades Of Singing In Public For Money.

Once upon a time in the relatively recent past, they made a movie in which you not only had to believe that Gwyneth Paltrow was Huey Lewis's, naïve, angelic, virginal, Las Vegas Showgirl daughter, but that Huey himself made his living as a karaoke hustler. That's right, a karaoke hustler. I don't think that's ever been a real thing but I would like it to be. Duets is a movie with many faults, but Paul Giamatti's performance remains the single greatest portrayal of midlife crisis/breakdown ever. Michael Douglas in Falling Down and Kevin Spacey in American Beauty are hailed as benchmarks, but they lack the heart. They lack that spark of crazy that Giamatti brings to 'popping out for some cigarettes', and neither of them ever made me cry singing 'Try a Little Tenderness'.

The sheer joy of singing at full volume to a room full of strangers cannot really be represented in a batshit crazy movie that represents Karaoke as a viable career option, but it does a good job. Music soothes even the savage beast, supposedly, and has an unreasonable effect on our moods. I maintain that anybody can sing, given enough time and practice. Certainly well enough to sing in a choir, do karaoke or impress their friends. The trouble begins when easily-impressed friends suggest that those of average ability should do it professionally. It does, admittedly, lead to the only bits of X-Factor worth watching, but also to some of the most excruciating pub bands I have ever had the misfortune to watch (and occasionally find myself depping for). Luckily I'm too polite to tell those who are willing to pay me money for my musical services that my dog's angry requests for a walk are more tuneful then them.

This is how you sound to me when you sing
Stop it

Singing is not black magic, but you need to spend a hell of a lot of time doing it with no sense of dignity or shame in order to be able to hold your own. If you hold back for fear of being laughed at, you will suck; if you give a shit what other people think of your voice, you will suck; if you are not using every single part of your being to project the very essence of the song out into the world, then you will suck. Even if you are doing all of this, you will probably still suck – join a choir or an am-dram group instead, there is strength in numbers. I have, at best, an average voice, but ever since I was twelve and every band I put together failed to find a singer, I have been resigned to having to do it. Having grown up singing in both church and school choirs (once at a big posh do in Exeter Cathedral, and once on the telly), I was the default best-of-a-bad-lot choice for frontman.

I was about sixteen, a little drunk at a family party and singing AC/DC's Crabsody in Blue when I received the review that gave me hope. My big sister turned round to me and said, 'shit, that was actually quite good.' It has stuck with me forever, and any time I am worried that I might not be able to pull a gig off, I remember. My sister is not one for unnecessary compliments (she also once mistook a Led Zeppelin record for me practising, I took her shout of 'Turn your fucking guitar down!' as high praise).

I seem to give less fucks as the years go by
Sorry I couldn't find any pictures of me in the choir

It's no different from learning any other instrument. I gave up piano lessons when I was about 8, and took up guitar a few years later. I spent every minute I could between the ages of 11 and 20-something with a guitar in my hand, playing, playing and playing it some more and am now good enough to play without really thinking about it. Whereas, I am currently re-learning how to play the piano properly and it is hard going thinking about the mechanics of what my hands are doing and what notes I want to play. Because I am old now, and it is less intuitive. In the same way, those singers I am lucky enough to work with that have been singing in front of bands for as long as they can remember are – for the most part – fucking heavenly. Whilst those who hit mid-life crisis and decided to give it a punt because they always wanted to try it are – at best – pretty good, you know, considering, etc etc. Like most things, if you leave it too late, you will never be great. Just accept it.

I am unreasonably critical of other singers, because I cannot understand how, if a song is inside your range (mine is incredibly limited – but I know what notes I can and can't hit) and you've got an instrument to pitch to, you can still manage to not be in tune. I understand that years of angry choir masters rapping my knuckles with rulers refined my tuning, as has the last more than thirty years of singing in public, and that my knackered right ear is now a permanent monitor allowing me to hear my own voice in my head above everything else. And that I lack empathy for others. Maybe somewhere in there is the difference between the fan/karaoke/choir singer and someone with the brass cojones to stand at the front and tell the rest of the band what to do?

You Have To Earn The Fucking Cape
Pay Your Dues

Monday 15 January 2018

Change Is Inevitable, You Will Be Assimilated.

The most annoying thing about middle age is the creeping nostalgia, everywhere you go things scream, 'I am not like I used to be!' at you all the time. I am not from the age of steam, but most stations are, the slatted wooden roofs and victorian buildings hit you with a warm glow of Jenny Agutter-related feelings.

The now-sadly-locked-forever doors between platform and cafe at Exeter St Davids take me back to the days when my mother used to leave me and my siblings on the train and send us off to our grandparents. Anyone could get from street to platform and back as often as they liked without buying a ticket, or having to find a human being to help you through a broken automatic turnstile. A well-meaning parent could put you and your bags on the train before waving a tearful goodbye (probably tears of relief at getting a break from the kids) from the platform. An abandoned bag would be picked up and asked about, rather than detonated, and you could buy your ticket on the train after getting on (or try to skilfully avoid the conductor). Modern stations are now, architecturally speaking, an uneasy mix of Enid Blyton and Philip K. Dick.

Once on a train it is now customary to make a little living room in your seat. Young girls are setting up tablets and headphones to bingewatch shows on netflix, all the while holding their phones to their faces to make sure they're getting enough insta-likes – 'On the train bingeing Ru-Paul, lol. #bigweekend #essaydue #lateron.' filter filter filter filter. Meanwhile the besuited city men continue to hammer noisily at laptops or give it the full trigger-happy TV into their mobile phones: working, working, working (perhaps).

My reaction to this is surely a sign of my age, the world keeps moving, and we can move with it, or be angry about everything until we die. I felt a pang of sadness that these kids weren't allowing themselves a bit of space, time to think. That they weren't even paying attention to the TV show they were watching, let alone where they were, being in the moment for a minute. They were no different to me, sitting reading a book (I am currently going through a phase of reading dreadfully written books with really interesting plots, or beautifully written books with no discernible plot, and one anomaly which turned out to be both) on a kindle no less. Or even the newspaper-reading bowler-hatted commuters of the golden age of steam. Ignoring everything and putting yourself into a little bubble is what being on a train is all about surely?

I remembered the days when I used to cross the country by train with an 8 pack of lager and a packet of embassy no 1. I was that drunk bloke on a train, waving a cigarette in your face and making you talk to him about whatever happened to come to mind. I met some of my best friends on trains, admittedly, I never saw them again after I got off, but for a few hours, we were best friends. I still drink on trains, but the difference now is that I buy it from the trolley – fellow passengers find this more socially acceptable (upon field testing my acceptable train drinking theory, a man gave me a scathing look as I pulled a can of Strongbow from my coat pocket, minutes before he paid for a tiny bottle of trolley wine).

This is not a real historical picture of me on a train

On my return (from London) I had a look at my notes. There were loads again, enough that, added to all the previous pieces I've written (this, this and this at least) I could probably make my next book non-fiction: a misanthropic yokel's guide to the capital. On the other hand, I can't keep on writing jokes about modern parents (this time they impressed me, a lady in a hijab patiently explaining the 1666 restoration of Charles II using Frozen as an analogy), ludicrous fashion trends among the young (this year it's Noddy Holder trousers and big socks) and urban runners (my favourite was an angry goose on the south bank).

Security is the new constant. The streets of London have never been more fear-inducing. More so because it probably is necessary. Armed police and crash barriers side by side with anachronistic horseguards (who are not necessary, because of the armed police and crash barriers). Add this to the fact that everyone you walk past has an earpiece and is talking to themselves down their sleeves, so therefore must be a secret agent, and you could be living in an Orwellian dystopia of your own making. The city itself is the same stark contrast as the station, shining glass and steel alongside iconic historical edifices – Bladerunner writ large atop Fagin, Scrooge and Pickwick.

We are treated like idiots now, from the locked station cafe doors to the 'Caution Extremely Hot Water' signs above the tepid stream of public toilet handwashing water. Large public tactile art installations rendered impotent by cordons, every stair covered in high-vis yellow and black tape, and warnings on tube platforms about dropping your phone on the line. Like most of the modern world, it is beyond satire.

The first ten years of the millennium saw change beyond belief. When 2000 dawned, there were a handful of us hanging out in forums and text-based chatrooms online, still seen as weirdos, I had a CD walkman and a coat full of paperbacks for long journeys, and wrote notes in a notebook in my pocket (when I hadn't lost it). By the end of the decade everybody was sharing pictures of their breakfast via smartphones, I was reading books on a kindle (same one I still have), making notes on my phone (truly a godsend since any pen left in my pocket will make a break for it within an hour, and my notebooks all ended up in illegible scrawls) and could fit my whole record collection on a box in my pocket (again, the same one I still have). All the changes since then have felt like tinkering around the edges, bigger phones, smaller phones, slightly more intuitive interfaces, whizzier graphics. This could be just because I got old. I was in my twenties when it all began so I paid attention. Do please prove me wrong.

The past was generally okay if you had staff and a big house
like the Box of Delights kids did

It makes people yearn for the past, for a simpler age – as change always has done. The hipsters returning to print books, vinyl records, and waxed moustaches are no different from the pre-Raphaelites trying to return to what they saw as a golden age of art. Going back is both impossible and ultimately undesirable. Fictional versions of the days between the wars, travelling on steam trains and listening to Jazz are very different from the realities of polio, tuberculosis, manual labour without health and safety and dying in childbirth. Besides, if you did it properly, you wouldn't be able to snapchat it, so what's the point?

But for most kids it looked a bit more like this
Not quite so palatable

The London I have just visited, and the trains I travelled on are completely unrecognisable from those of my youth. It's not a bad thing, and the world moves on. Eventually it will become so unfamiliar to our eyes that we do not want to see it anymore. It's always been this way, and prepares us so that when we finally have to leave this world, we are glad to wave goodbye to a place we no longer recognise.