Soloing etiquette

I love a bit of band politics and a recent experience has got me to reminiscing about a certain situation that has arisen in bands I have been in:

“I think you two should take it in turns to solo during more numbers,” Came the input at band rehearsal last night. “I think it makes a great extension to the songs and gives you (points at me) a chance to show off your harmonica skills.”  Five minutes later during the soloing section of the song in hand, our guitarist was happily noodling away. As soon as he started I backed off the mic, took the harp out of my mouth and waited out the allotted ‘one time around the verse and chorus’ that he had his turn to solo in. I did my usual introductory riffs to take the lead from him at the end of the turnaround, but to my surprise he wasn’t budging. He just kept on soloing. I tried the eye contact, but his eyes were closed, lost in his solo. It was actually a truly epic solo so I took the chance to listen to what he was playing and felt awed at how good his chops where. ‘I’ll get it on the next one’, I thought to myself. The turnaround came again and… you guest it, he carried on soloing! This time around the verse when the turnaround came the singer had decided that it was time to bring the last verse in so he wilfully started singing, my chance of a solo in this song passed by. I automatically dropped back in to backing mode and the band played on.

At the end of the song our singer wasted no time and addressed the issue straight away.
“When it’s Paul’s turn to solo you have to stop playing so that we can hear him.”
“I did!” protested our guitarist.
“No you didn’t I was here and I heard it!” Our singer shoots back. The singer and guitarist have been in bands with each other for many years now so how they speak to each other looks like crap when written down but is actually always spoken with complete affection.
“Alright, maybe I did carry on soloing, but I did play a bit quieter during his solo.”
“That’s still soloing even if it is quiet, maybe you should just play chords while Paul solos?”
“Yeah man, no probs!”
An amicable solution had been found and the issue addressed.

The whole situation took me back nearly 30 years to the first band I was ever in. I then realised that this ‘solo stealing’ had been happening all my musical life. Thankfully, these days it was dealt with in an adult and (semi) professional manner. Back when I was in a band with 4 other teenage boys, all playing harmonicas it was a completely different story…

We had a tune called ‘Random’s Boogie‘ and we played that tune everywhere. And when I say everywhere I mean EVERYWHERE. It was a mostly improvised 12 bar blues boogie where we started off with a slow section and then after a couple of times round the 12 we kicked off into a fast paced boogie chug. The structure after that was to take turns in having a solo and show off our skills. There being 3 lead players in the band there was plenty of room to extend or shorten the tune depending on the time slot we needed to fill. This made the tune perfect for radio and TV so we wheeled this tune out time and time again. You can probably see where I’m going with this…

The solo stealing started by accident, we just weren’t listening to each other and couldn’t tell who’s turn it was. Everyone wanted to play at once and it just sounded like a dog’s breakfast. Needless to say that the tact of a 13 year old boy is far removed from that of a 30something, so the suggestion that we take turns was not given or taken as lightly or amicably as it was at my recent band rehearsal. To be blunt, we just swore and shouted at each other over it. Far from resolving the situation (quelle surprise), drawing attention to the issue only made things worse. Knowing that stealing each others solos wound each other up we started to do it on purpose. When the solo stealing started out in rehearsals it was quickly jumped on by our managers and musical directors, especially when we were rehearsing for TV slots. We would start just soloing over each other and it sounded proper awful. After being reprimanded we would all play nice and take turns during the next rehearsal. The very second the red light turned on on the TV cameras it was a free-for-all again. We all played over each other, stole solos and made each other really angry. Being the goody-two-shoes that I was at the time I stopped participating and just back and didn’t take my turn to solo, I just carried on playing the backing. I started to feel like a side man in my own group. I began to resent the situation and came to hate playing the tune at all. I was 14, moody and if I couldn’t play I was gonna take my ball home.

What I have taken away from this is that what we are playing, the tune, the song, is bigger than those of us playing it. We are party to creating a great thing and should feel privileged to be part of the song, no matter how small a part we play. It’s a cliche for a reason but the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts. The solo is no good without decent backing to play it over. But it’s tough, because if we’re doing it properly we commit ourselves emotionally to the song and give a piece of ourselves away. The trick is not to be too precious about it and give that piece of yourself willingly and accept deference to your higher power: music.

My advice: keep your ears and eyes open, remember what you rehearsed and most important of all leave your ego at the rehearsal room door!

Has any of this happened to you? How are the politics in your band?

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Soloing etiquette

I Used to be in a Band – ‘What’s That Noise?’ – 1991

When you get a call from the BBC asking you to be on one of their shows its a fair assumption that you’ve actually made it. Yes, the BBC actually called us up and asked us to be on their music artsy programme What’s That Noise. I was a massive fan of the original run of the programme which was charismatically presented by Craig Charles. Being a massive fan of Red Dwarf as well I was so excited I could have burst at the prospect of actually meeting him. Having said that, we had appeared on Jools Holland’s Happening a few years back and not actually met Jools himself at all. I placed my excitement in reserve and in retrospect it was a good job that I did. Repackaged and revamped, What’s That Noise was being presented by Tony Gregory whom we had met before when appearing on rival channel ITV’s Motormouth. Our manager, Norman, even had the balls to ask Tony why he switched sides. Tony answered awkwardly that it was for the prestige but certainly not the pay. Ryan just stuck asking Tony where Craig Charles was, a question which obviously didn’t go any way towards lifting the awkwardness at all.

Technology had marched on during the time that we had been frequenting television studios. Instead of the usual clip-on microphones or makeshift vocals mics on a stand, ‘gun-shot’ microphones placed some way in front of us. Pointing up from the floor they were unobtrusive and picked up the sound beautifully from quite a distance. It was a great relief not to be tied to a microphone whilst playing the mouth organ for a change. One could almost be forgiven for forgetting that the mics were there at all. Set in an arty mood with a studio reminiscent of the minimalistic set for The Old Grey Whistle Test, the new format for the show was strikingly different to what I was used to watching on the original Craig Charles version. Long fading camera shots, multiple takes and extremely talented musicians took up the whole day and went on well into the evening as all acts performed their numbers.

As we were about to trudge back to our dressing room a dandy looking, very petite chap in a red velvet suit stood in the middle of the studio floor and asked us all to gather round. I recognised the musical director straight away. We had been introduced to him earlier in the day but up until that point had not actually had any interaction with him. He explained that he wanted everyone to perform a piece intro music for the show. The piece would then be used as a backdrop for Tony to present the acts and do a talk-over. The idea was for us each to play a different note in harmony with the other groups, artists and musicians appearing that day as one big band altogether. Musical director that he was he knew exactly what he wanted us to play. He walked past the line of us five lads and called a note out pointing to each of us as he passed. I was told to play a D flat, John was told to play an F. Bearing in mind the amount of collaboration that needed to happen between the various sorts of musicians for this to come off correctly, it became obvious to me that this velvet clad dandy knew what he was doing.

At the end of quite a long day of ‘work’ five teenage boys can get a bit restless. Things had got a bit pushy and shovey down the line up as the day had gone on and John was in a particularly odd teenage mood by the time we came to the big band slot. Our managers had retreated hours ago into the control room with the director and editing crew. We were unsupervised, tired and not the most receptive we could have been.

After the first run-through things were sounding a little odd. The musical director moved between the acts and stuck his ear out in front of each of them in turn listening for the culprit with the bum note. He circled past us and stopped in front of John. The chap leaned forward and very politely told John in a whisper that he was playing the wrong note. John seemed to take this piece of criticism very well to begin with. Having a reputation for being more than a little unreasonable at band rehearsals when it came to correction, I was surprised when there came no reaction. When John was right, he was right and no amount of proof or logic or evidence would sway him. I knew it had all gone a little too well. As the musical director turned his back to walk away John pulled a face. Waiting until the chap was half way across the room John started:
“Fucking c***, who does he think he is?” John said under his breath. All the time staring daggers at the musical director’s back across the room from us. The musical director stopped suddenly. Still with his back to us he lifted the index finger on his left hand to his earpiece. His head turned in our direction, just for a second. After a moment he carried on walking, almost as if he meant to go and do something and then thought better of it. Ryan gave an affirming snigger in John’s direction, so John carried on.
“Fucking twat, fucking telling me I played the wrong note. Fuck him.” John grinned across the room aggressively in the musical director’s direction. By this time Peter had joined in the sniggering.
“How much of a twat is he then John?” Ryan smirked, egging him on.
“He can’t fucking tell me what note I’m playing. I know what fucking note I’m playing. I’m doing it fucking right, must be some other c***.” vented John.

As usual at this point in this sort of situation, we all joined in. Swearing, giggling and calling the musical director all the names under the sun then ensued from all of us. Bravely done behind his back and far across the studio floor from him.

Segment finished and in the can, we were presented by a runner to our red-faced managers Norman and David. They ushered us out of the studio, barely giving us time to wash the make up off our faces. Being herded into the back of a white transit van and careering off in a screech of tires was becoming a bit of a habit. We sat in silence on the way to the hotel that night. Silence was also the main theme for the van drive home down the A12 in the morning. Just outside the M25 I ventured to dare to ask Norman what the matter was.
“I’m still too angry too angry to say anything at the moment.” Norman commented sternly.
I hung my head in shame, we had been bad again and again I had no idea what had happened. I reassured myself that I sat on the side of the righteous had nothing to worry about. At this point I had a very clear conscience.

Norman stopped the van just outside of Chelmsford to fill up with petrol. Peter, John and Ryan all piled out of the back of the van and into the shop. For some strange reason, John decided that what would make the ultimate snack, the king of comestibles would not be a pack of crisps or a chocolate bar like any other normal person. Oh no, in his tiny pea-sized brain John thought it would be totally awesome (it was the nineties after all) to buy a sliced white loaf of bread. We set off again and the five of us rattled around in the back of the van getting more and more boisterous. Norman and David on the other hand sitting in the front seats of the van, got more and more stern. Things got out of hand. With no seats in the back of the van the five of us were free to kick the living shit out of each other if we so desired. Something we did quite regularly on tours. With no seats or harnesses in the way we took full advantage of the space and started throwing stuff at each other. A toilet roll, a rolled up towel, a cushion, a wash bag with toiletries still in it etc. This all went flying around the inside of the back of the van, much to our own amusement. In a stroke of pure genius(!) John decided that he would ball up slices of dry bread and hurl them at the rest of us. Pretty soon the back of the van looked like a bad snow scene. Crumbled and smeared white sliced loaf was in our hair, our clothes and stuck to pretty much every surface it could. It was when someone, I forget who, started chewing up the bread and making spit-laden dough balls that Norman stepped in. The van came to a screeching halt in a lay-by. Norman leaned over the back of his seat and started grabbing bits of bread manically. Ryan got the arse that he had been thrown around in the stopping of the vehicle and was making ‘I’m going to sue you’ noises at Norman. Norman was not interested.

“You are never going on TV ever again. This is the last trip I ever do for you lot.” shouted Norman amidst his bread grabbing fury.
“It’s only a bit of fun Norman.” countered John, “we’ll clear it up, don’t cry about it.”
“Yeah don’t howl Norm.” seconded Peter.
“Its not the bread that’s pissed me off, although it would have been nice to have been offered some. I’m starving!” said Norman, “It’s what happened at the BBC that’s really got me mad.”

The five of us exchanged quizzical looks for a moment. Then it dawned on me.
Norman delivered the coupe de grace: “We could hear you breathing in the control room.”

The entire floor staff had heard every breath we took and every word we said. The feed from the gun-shot microphones that we had mistakenly forgotten about had taken our foul-mouthed tirade against the musical director and plumbed it round the entire studio. Most importantly it fed right into the earpiece of the red-suited dandy of a musical director.

“We didn’t know where to look after the first 5 minutes of you boys swearing.” David put in.
“Once you piss off the BBC you have pretty much dug your own grave as far as TV goes.” finished Norman.
He was being melodramatic, but he was understandably very angry and embarrassed. I am sure at the time we all thought it was a great big laugh, but really… you never know who’s listening.

I Used to be in a Band – ‘What’s That Noise?’ – 1991

I Used to be in a Band – Radio Norfolk 1989 – Part I

A cabaret act made up of 5 teenage boys from Great Yarmouth playing mouth organs? Sounds exactly like the sort of thing that would win a talent contest run by Radio Norfolk, doesn’t it? As a band we had attended many of these sorts of local talent show events. Our older manager, Norman, thought it was a great way for us to get local exposure and keep us in the public eye. Our younger manager David on the other hand, was always looking at the bigger picture of national coverage for the band. Well, when I say that the exposure and brand awareness was for the band, what I actually mean is that it was for the organisation that bore us: Harp Start. The children’s harmonica school aimed to put a mouth organ in the hands of every child in the UK, free of charge. Running an organisation like that required sponsorship, earnings and donations from wherever possible (as long as they were legal!). It was therefore important that we took every opportunity to get into the public eye that we could. Which included humiliating ourselves at a local talent show.

We were put onto the event by Radio Norfolk impresario and children’s entertainer, Olly Day. Not his real name I was led to understand, but he lived up to the name by being one of the most nauseatingly happy people I have ever met. You know, one of those people who almost makes you want to rise to the challenge of pissing him off. Even at the tender age of 12 I was sure I wanted to make it my mission to wipe the eternal smile from his face. Something I am almost ashamed to say that we achieved collectively as a band. Norman and David had been trolling the local radio stations to try to get a bite for local coverage for the band and came across a friendly ear in Olly. He invited us onto his evening radio show so that we could play a few tunes and Norman and David could beg for cash. Sorry, I mean ‘put out a well-mannered plea for sponsorship to be forthcoming’. My bad, but in the years following the events depicted here the constant pleas for sponsorship became blatant and to be honest, plain embarrassing. At its lowest point David basically used to get us to play at bars so that he could get free drinks all night. The man was an alcoholic, amongst other things, so I guess he had needs. Having been one myself as an adult, I understand.

Radio studio circa 1980sUpon our arrival at the Radio Norfolk station HQ the 5 of us lads were ushered into an empty studio to wait for Olly to be ready for us to go out live on the air. Norman and David were off pressing the flesh, meeting and greeting etc., whatever managers do, I really can’t remember. The point is that we were unattended in what was basically a studio room with a sound desk, microphones and sound proofed walls. We foolishly assumed that the equipment was switched off and that the massive mirror along one side of the studio was for us to see ourselves in. What is it they say? Never assume anything as it makes an ass out of you and me.

John was first. Pretending to be conducting an interview he donned the ‘cans’ that were floating around on the desks and started to play his harmonica as loud as he could into the assumed not-live microphone in front of him. “Yes, yes ladies and gentlemen that was John playing the mouth organ and yes he is fucking awesome so fuck you all and goodnight!” he playfully chatted in his best radio voice. Situations sometimes spiralled out of control with us as group of lads. Just the same as when you are a kid hanging around on street corners. Someone shouts at an old lady, someone kicks a milk bottle, someone else throws something and before long you have a ‘chase’ and it all gets out of control. Most of the time with us 5 it just seemed to be a small spark to light a firework. Once John had broken the seal of faux radio voices and swearing into the microphone we were all doing it. “Hi, my name’s Olly-fucking-Day it is, and that is my real fucking name because I’m a fucking twat!” was Peter’s riposte at the top of his lungs into the nearest microphone. Ryan chose an American style radio voice for some reason, “My name’s Olly Day and I like to suck a lot of cock.” I will spare you the rest of the depth of profanity that graced those fine radio station walls, but needless to say that all of it was the product of undereducated underclass teenage boys imagination and none of it was suitable for broadcasting.

After about 30 minutes of this and a whole bunch of other japes, which may or may not of included one of us pulling a mooney in front of the ‘mirror’, Norman and David came to get us to take us through for the live show.

The studio for the live broadcast was only next door to the one we had been held in. I say ‘held’ because it really did seem like being held in a cell after 30 minutes of that sort of behaviour. I thought it seemed odd that they didn’t have a mirror on their wall, just a dirty great window that looked into an empty studio. I could hear music playing through the cans that graced the desks and hung from microphones over tables that looked like the sort you play cards on. There was one guy at the sound desk with cans on and next to him with cans round his neck and a very red face indeed was Olly himself. It looked like someone had achieved my ultimate goal of wiping the supercilious smile from his face. Ever the professional Olly ushered us in, forced a smile and gestured seats for us all. He arranged us round a microphone with a stern face and more forced smiling, then positioned microphones and even patted one of us on the head when we did as we were bid. It was true to say that through all the professionalism that Olly displayed, he atmosphere absolutely stank. The free and easy Olly Day that we had all met when we first came to the station that night had gone and a stern, professional exterior remained. I could sense a change in his demeanour and Norman and David definitely sensed it. The interview was given to David from an increasingly red-faced Olly who seemed like he wanted to be anywhere but there. Was it my imagination or was he rushing the interview and getting to the bit where we were to play a tune rather quickly? It was previously arranged that he would speak to one of us lads and ask us about our personal experience with the mouth organ, but that didn’t take place. Perhaps there wasn’t time?

At the end of our segment Olly thanked us all and shook all our hands on our way out of the studio. Our new best friend in radio-land, happy to give us a plug whenever he could, helping us on our merry way of promoting our career down the very path we required. Or so we thought. Just as the last of us exited the studio door, Olly called after Norman and David, “Could I have a quick word please gents?” he asked, ever politely. “You boys can wait in reception and try to behave yourselves.” David offered after us, a tad too little too late.

Five minutes later our teacher/managers emerged into the reception area of the Radio Norfolk foyer with very sullen faces indeed and eyes that could look at anywhere but us. I was used to conflicts in adults and as a child grew up with a violent father who could turn on you at any moment, I knew when I was in trouble and Norman and David displayed all the signs. “What’s up?” I asked David. It was always easier to ask David about his feelings on a subject, he was usually less angry and less likely to dish out a punishment. Perhaps I felt like I could get away with more where David was concerned, I had known Norman longer and knew he had higher standards and ran a tougher regime. “You’ll have to wait until we get back to the van, I am sure Norman and I have a few choice things to discuss with you all.” I hated waiting for retribution. As an adult, waiting for punishment gives me have a panic attack, as a child I dealt with it in far worse ways.

Back at the van, blissfully unaware that we had done anything wrong, the other lads carried on with their usual japery and banter. Norman started the engine and as soon as we were mobile, David started his speech. Turning round in his seat the face the rest of us that were lounging around in the back of the Ford Transit van, he explained it all.

It turned out that whilst we had been left alone in the vacant studio room, all the microphones in there had been left on and the ‘mirror’, you might have guessed, was a one-way glass that was visible from the studio that Olly resided in next door. The feed from all the microphones in our room had been ringing in his ears throughout the broadcast he had been engaged in previous to our segment, ready for him to interview us from that very room. Apparently, Olly had said that we were never to darken the doors of Radio Norfolk ever again. He didn’t get his wish, we had a talent show to contend in!

To be continued…

I Used to be in a Band – Radio Norfolk 1989 – Part I

I used to be in a Band – Porno in a Hedge 1990

So the annual traipse across Britain was undertaken this particular year towards Kent and a little place called Sible Hedingham. Incredibly twee and definitely Tory, the place smelt of money and the idyllic quiet life. By this I mean it had trees, an active industrial estate and pub that didn’t have blood stains on the car park. In short, it was a town that was opposite to ours in almost every way. The British Harmonica Championships and festival was dwindling. It was dwindling down to the last few blue-tie wearing, old-school, old-boy network, Kent-type people that kept the National Harmonica League alive. Lets face it, an organisation with the word ‘league’ in the title smacks of one of two things: comic book geekery or 1970s middle class stuffiness. It didn’t seem it back then. I am sure it doesn’t seem it to read this, but I appreciate that those guys kept it all going through those tough and quiet times. Seeing the NHL in the productive and flourishing state it is now is partly down to those guys keeping the lights on. I salute them, every white collared one of them. Times were financially very bleak in the UK around then and these guys were probably the only chaps with any money left to put into a dying art like playing the Harmonica. Calling themselves the ‘Kent Chromatics’ a small band of middle-of-the-road music loving, middle-aged good guys decided to hold the ‘festival’ in their neck of the woods that year. I say ‘festival’ because that was what it was called, even though it had the sum total of around 30 people in attendance.

Our manager and designated driver Norman decided that as it wasn’t too far, we would all travel there in the Transit van and drive back the same day. Turning up at the Sible Hedingham Village Club Hall was a hark back to a golden age. The Village club hall was the closest thing to a Working men’s club that the world still had and it looked every bit of it. There was an air of make do and mend about the whole affair. There were hand written signs to the toilet and refreshments supplied in chipped mugs by the wives of the Kent Chromatics (or harmonica widows, as I like to call them). Hand painted wooden plaques with league tables of pub game champions throughout the years adorned the walls.

As usual, the five of us; my brother Dean, John, Peter, Ryan and myself were chosen to represent our small corner of the harmonica community. David was to accompany us as a chaperone. Earlier that year, before our American tour, Norman and David became more than just our chaperones. They had applied for a Matron’s licence for our supervision purposes. Norman and David claimed that it gave them parental powers over us and as such we were to respect them in the eyes of the law. I looked this up and found this paragraph under The Children (performances) Regulations 1968 which just about sums up what there role was for us:

Matrons
12. (1) A person, who may be a man or a woman, approved by the licensing authority (in these Regulations referred to as a matron) shall be in charge of the child at all times during the period beginning with the first and ending with the last performance to which the licence relates except while the child is in the charge of a parent or teacher.

They had legal care and control of us. They were, as they claimed, legally our parents for the period of our performances. Reading through the rest of the article, it seems that one of my parents must have signed something to hand over care and control to them. Kind of scary when I look back, but no-one suspected. Funny word isn’t it, paedophile. It means ‘love of children’, but not the nice caring, gentle, nurturing love that exists between parent and child. No, it has come to mean the sexual defilement of children. It is an ugly word, a horrible thing to call someone and a label that once cast will never really be shaken. It is fair to say that Norman and David loved children. Honestly, they did. They cared for us, they cared how we acted and how we felt when we were afraid and confused. They took us all around the world and never allowed any of us to come to any physical harm whatsoever. Well, except for that time that John gave Ryan a black eye when we were on Motormouth.

I digress. Long story short: we couldn’t behave ourselves. Norman and David were preoccupied with harmonica business in the hall leaving us lads to our own devices. We found pieces of a porno mag in a nearby hedge and took turns to steal and snatch it from each other to try and get something to wank over. The mag got smaller and smaller and more and more ripped to pieces as we fought over it. Soon it was in total shreds and no good to man nor beast by the time I got hold of it. I tried to get excited by the small scrap I was left with, but I really couldn’t make out what it was at all. It just looked like a small, dismembered animal and there was no way that was getting me off. That really is saying something, as any other man will tell you, at 14 years old there is not a lot that will not make you get an erection. Later that day I found out that one of the lads had squirrelled a sizeable piece of tit and pussy shot for himself. I had nipped back to the van to grab a harmonica I had left there and opened the side sliding door of the van just in time to see the scrap of paper disappearing down the front of his jeans. He really didn’t care that I had caught him either, he just laughed and carried on.

Back at the Village Club Hall, Norman was being collared by an elderly gentleman and asked if he knew the kids running riot outside. He was telling Norman about us throwing stones at the windows of what looked like an abandoned warehouse/factory. I honestly thought that it was abandoned, why else would anyone be throwing stones at its windows? When I had walked past John and Peter were smashing what seemed like every pane in the entire wall of the building. The warehouse was behind a large fence and quite a way off, a lot of skill was required to get the stones to hit the really high windows. I really wanted a go and John and Peter were smashing them quickly so we all joined in throwing stones, Dean being a particularly good shot. I had never broken a window with a stone before and actually found it really satisfying. I recognised the old man complaining to Norman as the one we had all told to “fuck off” earlier when he had walked past waving his walking stick at us and shouting for us to stop. Norman shouted at us for ages, which was something he NEVER did. David was too drunk to care by this point and we all spent a very quiet ride home in the van.

As I read this back, remembering those times, I am not so sure we were actually an harmonica band. The whole situation seemed to be less about the music and more about just being a group of lads from Great Yarmouth getting into trouble.

I used to be in a Band – Porno in a Hedge 1990

I used to be in a band – Motormouth 1990

Certain aspects of someone’s life can influence their behaviour regardless of the social situation. No matter where we were or what was at stake, the urge to wind each other up to breaking point just wouldn’t go away. I guess you could say that you can take the boys out of Yarmouth, but you couldn’t take Yarmouth out of the boys. The cocktail was always the same; 5 teenage boys: two sets of brothers from deprived backgrounds with abusive parents and one over-privileged, mega competitive kid with pushy parents. We fought each other everywhere we could. We would make teams of two or three against the others, then switched allegiances and then as quickly as anything we would all turn to pick on one individual.

One of the first TV shows we ever appeared on was a Saturday morning kids TV show called ‘Motormouth’. We had gone down so well at our first appearance that we had been asked back to appear again for the second series over a year later. I was 13 years old and going to be on television playing my harmonica for the umpteenth time. I think I was getting a little bit blasé about being on TV. I think we all were. The first few times we had been at a TV studios had been very exciting. Preceded by weeks of not being able to sleep and packing a bag in readiness for the trip the week before we were due to leave, down to playing my harmonica until I had the tune perfect for the performance. The preparation was intense.

I’m not sure how it all started but it seemed like Ryan and John had been arguing since we left Great Yarmouth. Our journeys out to gigs and shows always took twice as long as they should have done and tensions could get a little high. Our designated driver, Norman, used to work as a lorry driver for Birds Eye and as such spent the entirety of the 1970’s navigating his way around Europe and the British Isles via greasy spoon truck stop cafés and restaurants. It was a geographical oddity that everywhere we went we had to stop off at the Red Lodge Café in Newmarket off the A11. Seriously, it didn’t matter if we were going to London, Birmingham, Wales, Kent or Dover, all roads led to the Red Lodge. I think that Norman’s ability to string a job out and claim as much overtime as he could when he worked for Birds Eye never left him. My young eyes have popped out of their head at a few places along the British Highways. The Formica, the grease, the way that they announced the arrival of food with a cigarette hanging out of the side of their mouth: “Beans on two toast,” shouted at the room as the plate was unceremoniously slammed onto the counter. I had no idea such odd places existed and the people that frequent them are even odder. Take us for example; how odd did it look with two grown men accompanying 5 teenage boys in matching stage clothing. Norman and David must have looked like the most successful gay adopting couple in the world. The world hadn’t learnt the word ‘paedophile’ yet. The Great British greasy spoon was a much loved institution. Nowadays it is mourned by only the few in the soulless roadside ‘malls’ and Welcome Break type establishments that replaced them.

Maidstone in Kent being our destination we were definitely due a stop at the Red Lodge café. I think it was at this point that things turned from bad to worse between Ryan and John. You could always tell were the next fight was brewing, it was always between the two that were getting on far too well and better than usual. As Ryan stepped into the van through the side sliding door he went to shut it behind him, unaware that John was close behind him, the door shutting on John as he jumped in. An honest mistake and no harm done as John was unscathed. Being one to do the right thing (or at least be seen to be doing the right thing) Ryan laughingly apologised. By this I mean he saw the funny side, as we all do when someone hurts themselves, but also apologised profusely at the same time. John however, didn’t quite see the humour and tried rather unsuccessfully to act dignified about the incident. John had the bit between his teeth the rest of the way to the TV studios and mentioned it every chance he could. It started off in a semi-joking way and got more and more to sounding like he was genuinely annoyed about it as the journey progressed. David used to say that as John’s brain was so small it never took much to fill it, which was why John used to fixate on one particular word, phrase or incident at a time. My theory was that John was a thug and when he was looking for a fight there would be no stopping him. Ryan on the other hand suffered from the terminal version of what I call ‘short man syndrome’, i.e.: he wasn’t afraid of someone who was clearly much bigger than him and he never knew when to keep his gob shut and stop taking the piss.

Arrival at an obscene hour of day was stock in trade for morning TV shows and we did our rehearsal with only one hitch; John forgot which chord was which on one tune we were playing. The love affair over, Ryan decided that he would chide John on not being able to remember how to play a tune we had played dozens of times and rehearsed endlessly. Ryan also chose to use the fact that John generally isn’t very bright to further aggravate him. However, using words that John couldn’t understand like ‘imbecile’ and the ilk did not deter John from noticing that he was being insulted. Ryan then gave up on hiding the insults in ‘long words’ as John called them and then took to just plain outright calling him a ‘thick twat’. We had a saying going around at the time which had derived itself from the sarcastic and ironic way of telling someone that ‘they know’. For example: “You know how to play the tune you do John.” The word ‘know’ in particular was drawn out sardonically in a mock Norfolk accent that only added to the insulting nature of the catchphrase. Watching John grind his teeth as Ryan muttered the phrase under his breath was initially quite funny. John was a big lad for 13 but if he didn’t know his words (or the chords to the songs) then he definitely knew how to use his fists. Either way it was going to be funny; John would throw a tantrum and make a dick out himself on a TV studio set, or Ryan would get his head kicked in. A win-win situation for me.
“Oh, my names John and I knaaaaaooow how to play the chords I do,” Ryan was getting hysterical with it now and laughing as he repeated each phrase. The rehearsal over we made our way off the set and towards our dressing room down one of the labyrinthine corridors of the TV studio.
“Why do you keep saying that you knob? I didn’t play it wrong. You are the one that always plays it fucking wrong.” John insisted.
“Yeah, like fuck I do John,” said Ryan throwing his head back laughing as we all walked along the corridor. “You knaaaaoooow how to play it you do!” he said again.
“Fuck off Ryan you little twat, I’m the best fucking player in this fucking band so fuck you!”
“You aaaaaare the best player though, you knaaaoooow you are!” Ryan was really laughing now and as we went through each set of double doors down the corridor he was slamming them behind him in John’s face. At the last set of doors John lost his temper. Grabbing Ryan by the scruff of the neck he punched him square in the eye. Ryan howled like a little girl and started clutching his eye. It was a testament to self control that John only punched him the once, perhaps the squealing that was coming out of Ryan made him think he had done more damage than he actually had and thought it best to stop with one punch? Personally I would have not just stopped at the one punch, especially where Ryan was concerned.

Ryan flounced into the dressing room, clutching his eye and screaming blue murder. John followed close behind and without hesitation received a clout round the back of his head from his father.
“How did you know it was me?!” John shouted.
“It’s fooking always you,” the northerner Peter senior explained. John and Peter’s father had come with us the first time we appeared on Motormouth, so I guess he thought he had rights to come along to the next one. I never even questioned why my parents were never invited, I was never led to believe it was any of my business. To be honest it was a relief, either of my parents would have made sure we behaved ourselves and that would definitely have spoiled all the fun. Peter senior seemed to like me and was funny in a sweary-uncle type way. You know, the uncle at a family wedding that tries to get you into trouble by buying you your first drink and teaching you obscure swear words. The said uncle then drinks too much, gropes the bridesmaids and eventually gets told off by your mum and/or your auntie.
“So why did you hit him?” asked Peter senior.
“I’m fucked off with him slamming doors on me. Don’t slam doors on me Ryan and you won’t get a twatting. Do it again and I’ll smack you ag…” John didn’t get chance to finish this last sentence as his father had delivered another massive slap to the back of his head.
“How am I going to go on?” wailed Ryan, “It’s going to be impossible to cover in make-up!” as he took his hand away he revealed a superb shiner. Honestly, he couldn’t have made it more purple and round if he had of painted it on.
“I’m sure they can do something,” David put a reassuring hand on Ryan’s shoulder.
“Yes, the show must go on.” the dramatics just made my eyes roll in my head as Ryan delivered this last line with the back of his hand to his forehead. Always the martyr.

David was right, the make up department did manage to cover Ryan’s shiner. John magically remembered the chords to the tune we were playing and the show did indeed go on. It always amazed me that no matter how much we used to batter the shit out of each other and argue, we always managed to get it together on stage. The stage has an odd effect on some people. David used to call it ‘Doctor Stage’ on account of how the nerves and adrenaline caused by the performance anxiety had the ability to cure any ills suffered on the lead up to a show. In a way the stage was a psychiatrist’s couch to us. It took away the pain of us wanting to kill each other, of our impoverished backgrounds and our sometimes abusive and negligent parents. For me personally, it made up for my lack of popularity. On stage I could be someone different, someone I liked and someone everyone else liked. At this stage of proceedings I felt like the true struggle for who I was as a person had begun. This struggle came to be the undoing in the end. The struggle for identity, freedom and integrity led most of us to leave the group, that and something darker. It led some of us to stop playing music altogether and some of us to continue our journey with discovering who we were.

I used to be in a band – Motormouth 1990

I used to be in a Band – Geek Convention 1988

A warm-up performance was needed for the newly assembled band and the upcoming British Harmonica championships seemed the perfect opportunity. To be held in Birmingham, our Harmonica teachers Norman, David and Pip thought that the opportunity to play in front of real Harmonica players and critics would be a litmus test for us all, including them as tutors. We seemed doomed to face up to the fact that we were indeed not a very good band.

The British Harmonica Championships was an annual event organised by the National Harmonica League (or NHL) of Great Britain. Harmonica players from all over Britain come along to compete in the various categories that are on offer for the chance to win a certificate, a trophy and the grand title of ‘British Harmonica Champion’ of that particular year. Being that the law was more relaxed in those days Norman, David and Pip were to chaperone us even though none of them were required or entitled to legally be our guardians. None of the parents questioned this and the trip went ahead. This trip was a first for us all, including the teachers/mangers as it involved a night away from home. The three teachers were to load us into the back of a Ford Transit van and trek off to the midlands with six teenagers in tow. They must have been mad. We left the Saturday morning and drove across country, practising our tunes all the way, just as we had sung campfire songs on the way to scout camps. In my mind this was all going to be a trip just like any other I had had with the scouts. If only every future trip could have been so uneventful and harmonious.

The NHL was to play a fairly large part in the nurturing and education of our young and keen Harmonica minds. An organisation that was set up just after the war by musical instrument manufacturer Hohner, the NHL had long since become independent and the members had dwindled to a few hardcore and ageing fanatics. We arrived to the amazement of the championship attendees and NHL members alike. Our matching costumes made a good first impression and we were the youngest people attending the event by at least twenty years. The membership of the NHL was ageing, but this did not wane their enthusiasm for the instrument. Everyone had all the time in the world for us kids. People I didn’t know were showing us different ways of playing, talking to us about our music and jamming with us on tunes that we all had in common. I had heard of Star Trek conventions and seen them reported on the TV before now. There I was at an Harmonica geek convention and I loved every minute of it. The rest of the day was spent doing the same and went by in a blur.

The evening concert was our moment of truth. Our rhythm player Jamie had been having trouble with the sequence of the chords on the middle eight section of El Cumbanchero during our rehearsals. Despite his insistence that it was he who was playing it correctly and that it was the rest of us that had it wrong, we decided to drop the tune from the act. So it was that we travelled for six hours to play one tune. It was well worth it for we received our second round of rapturous applause in that year. The assembled Harmonica players loved it. Any performer who gives a damn about their art (by this I mean; has an ego) will tell you that applause is a drug. Just like any other drug it is highly addictive, gives you a feeling of elation and you feel crap when you don’t get any. This applause thing felt really, really good.

After the concert, goodbyes were said and Pip decided that he would attempt to get us all home that very evening. I am not sure whether this just seemed like a good challenge to him, or if he longed for his own bed and the snug warm bosom of his wife. Probably both. Being a well-prepared former scout, I had packed my sleeping bag as had a lot of the other lads. Having heard enough Harmonicas being played for a lifetime, the jamming didn’t commence on the way home as it had on the way there. Peace reigned and eventually the van was filled with the sound of snoring teenage boys and lightly chatting adults. Eventually, Pip admitted defeat and parked the van in a truck stop overnight to get some sleep, somewhere near Leicester. I, however, could have driven the whole way had I been old enough to hold a license. I was buzzing with excitement. I had discovered that I was not the only person in the world in love with the Harmonica. I mean, sure all the rest of our Harmonica school and our teachers liked the Harmonica well enough, but that weekend I had met true Harmonicaphiles of the highest and geekiest order. The other matter that kept me awake was the condensation in the van. Caused by cold air outside the van meeting the warm breath of the sweaty, sleeping adolescents, the water was dripping off the roof onto my sleeping bag and onto my head. The condensation had fused poetically with the endless cigarette smoke that Norman and David had insisted on emitting in the enclosed space of the transit van, forming a stinking yellow liquid. This yellow liquid was then depositing itself all over me. No-one else seemed to be affected by this jaundice indoor rain. No matter where I moved, and that wasn’t far in a van full, it hit me all the same. In the end I gave up, stayed still and contemplated the day’s events excitedly in my mind. All the while I was hoping that the nicotine water wasn’t staining my face. I didn’t want my mother to think that I had caught a kidney infection from an Harmonica festival and thus would never let me attend one ever again.

I used to be in a Band – Geek Convention 1988

I used to be in a Band

During the late Eighties and early Nineties I was involved with a project that taught children to learn and play music using the Harmonica. When I say I was ‘involved’ I mean that I was one of the children receiving tuition, the people the project was aimed at helping. The project offered free lessons and instruments to any and all children under the age of 16 initially. After it dawned on the founders that it was predominantly kids from a deprived background that attended, they started promoting the project with its aim being to help underprivileged children.

The band’s American tour didn’t really start off as a tour, it just grew out of the one TV appearance. The project organisers, Norman and David, had morphed into our band management and as such decided that whilst in America we should make the best use of the opportunity and try to set up some more gigs, TV appearances and meetings. The original offer of a TV show appearance came from Disney. I know it sounds flippant when I say it like that but it really was a strange and out-of-the-blue phone call that they had received. Researchers for ‘The Mickey Mouse Club TV Show’ in the US had heard of the organisation that Norman and David were running and wanted to reward such a project. Disney had decided that this would best be shown in the form of an award, a Golden Mickey, for ‘Outstanding Talent’. The disadvantaged children that Norman and David were teaching music to were to come to America to receive the award on national television. David in particular had an eye for an opportunity and selected the musically strongest band in the project to groom for the tour. He wrote tunes and arrangements for us to play, chose us matching stage outfits and even selected a spokesperson (Ryan) amoungst us that would do the talking in interviews due to his well spoken English accent. Jealousy reigned supreme within the project amoungst the other kids who wouldn’t be going to America. A lot of kids in the organisation hadn’t been out of the county, let alone out of the country. So it was for two of the band members; brothers Peter and John. Being brothers presented a problem, mostly because as brothers they usually fought like cat and dog and there was already a set of brothers doing that; my brother Dean and I.

Due mostly to not being allowed to refuse, David managed to talk two more TV shows into having us perform and do a short interview. Using the Disney name and the fact that we were getting an award, ‘Nashville Now’ and ‘Good Morning America’ were coerced into having us appear. Chuck in an appearance on the ‘Gloria Hunniford TV Show’ on the way to the airport and we had ourselves a little tour. So that’s Florida for the Disney appearance, New York for ‘Good Morning America’ and back down to Tennessee for the ‘Nashville Now’ all in one week. I was 14 years old and had lived my entire life in Great Yarmouth, as far as I was concerned, we were rock stars.

One more meeting was set-up before we left England that May morning in 1990. David had managed to get us a gift of free instruments, for an endorsement, from a major Harmonica manufacturer (who shall remain nameless, not because of giving them a bad name as they behaved admirably and were really good to us, I just personally don’t rate their instruments). Meeting, photo shoot, dinner etc were all set for the same day we were due to be filming for Disney in Florida. I’m sorry to jump to this part, but honestly, filming for TV shows sounds exciting, but I found it the most boring process in the world. Saying the same lines over and over again, wearing a fake smile until it hurts, make-up, presenters etc etc. It all sucks in an amazingly boring way. In fact, I think I prefer my current factory job. The representative from the Harmonica firm was a guy named Jack. Jack illustrated to me one of the many reasons why I love America; I have always been made to feel welcome. Enthusiastic, polite, well mannered, calm and thoughtful, Jack was a true ambassador.

Hands shaken, photos taken, instruments given and presenters left to go back to the studio, Jack offered to buy us lunch. We all piled in his SUV and he took us to a great grill place he knew that served alligator, which he thought we would love. What boys don’t want to eat alligator? Anyway, on the way to the restaurant in the car, Peter spotted a sign and read it out loud. It is worth noting at this point that Peter was not really one of the more educationally advanced of our group. He was also only 12 years old, but he had a reading age of around 8, none of this was really an excuse for what followed, but what can you do? He was in a project for disadvantaged kids, so I guess no-one should have been surprised. Peter read the sign out loud in the way that most people who are learning to read do, I think he genuinely couldn’t read very well and would take any opportunity to practice. Massively imposing, very high advertising signs seemed to be everywhere along the freeway and Peter took to reading them all out loud as we drove along.
“Jack Daniels fifteen ninety-nine”,
“T-shirts from five dollars”,
“Wendys”,
“Manure fifteen cents a bag”,
“All you can eat salad”.
The random phrases knew no bounds and got more and more insane as the journey went on.

After a while Peter decided that what was written on the signs wasn’t entertaining enough so he started entering his own words and phrases into them. Getting bored with that, he started to string some of them together into a little song type rhythm, all sung in a hillbilly style fake American accent.
“Jack Daniels, you piss me off, you fucking turd, free shit twenty cents a bag, straight from the horses ass,” the last little ditty even included some mimed fiddle playing at the end. Once Peter noticed that the last tune amused us boys in the band it was all he sang over and over for the next 30 minutes.
“Jack Da-aniels, Jack Da-a-aniels, you piss me off, you fu-cking turd. Free shit, twenty-cents a bag, straight from the horses ass.” Every rendition being finished off with the same fiddle riff mimed with his massive cheesy grin.

What Peter failed to notice was that every time he said the name ‘Jack Daniels’, our benefactor glanced over his shoulder. Hearing your first name mentioned over and over again is going to make you look over and think you are being talked about. To then see us all laughing and swearing would just be the ultimate insult. I am sure it was to him. Dinner was spent in stoney silence from Jack, yet Peter continued his behaviour into some sort of death spiral. The swearing became more and more frequent until I am sure that one phrase that came out of Peter’s mouth had Jack Daniels fucking the horse in order to make horseshit babies that could then be bought for twenty cents.

The drive back to our villa was spent listening to Peter swear and nothing else. We were all tired and had enough, there was probably going to be a fight when we got back. The stoney silence continued from Jack and it had spread to Norman and David, who were clearly very angry but didn’t seem to want to reprimand Peter in front of Jack and make a scene. As we got of of the car all of us took turns to shake Jack’s hand and thank him for the meal and the Harmonicas. All of us except Peter. Peter refused to shake hands with anyone, citing it as ‘well gay’ and that he would ‘rather smack someone than shake their hand’. He finally relented after Norman whispered in his ear that he would be staying at the villa tomorrow instead of going to Disneyland with the rest of us. Rushing forward, Peter shook Jack’s hand and said in the most sugary fake American accent he could muster;
“Thanks Jack, you asshole,” I genuinely believe Peter just wanted to know what it was like to say ‘asshole’ in an American accent, like the actors do in the films he had seen. Jack just shook his head, got into his car and drove off.

The badly coffee stained newspaper clipping below is the only record I have of the events.

photo
L-R: Peter, Dean, Me, John, Ryan & Jack
I used to be in a Band