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?
It’s a can of worms, searching for your tone. It’s not like you ever had it only to lose it and had to look for it again. It’s not even like you can describe it to someone properly without gesticulating madly, making incoherent noises and using large amounts of onomatopoeia. Your tone is your sound, it can define you. So you think. As a young man I listened to a LOT of harmonica players on records, or CD’s as they were called back then. I wanted to play like they did and I wanted what they had. It was strange though, because my focus was always on their techniques, abilities and song choice and hardly ever on their ‘tone’. I say ‘hardly ever’ as I did have a dabble at one time, around the age of 17, with an astatic mic and a tube amp but it was short lived and lasted as long as someone else was buying the equipment. So it was that I spent (wasted?) hours learning the bends, overblows, overdraws, trills, scales, arpeggios, breathing patterns etc etc etc that came out of my stereo, placed there by my harmonica heroes. It will be 30 years next year since I picked up the Harmonica and I’m still acquiring new techniques this way.
But what about my ‘sound’?
For decades I have tried to find my own style, my own sound. These last two years I have invested a large amount of time into trying to find it. There has been tears, tantrums and a few angry gigs I have to tell you. I’ve bought and sold gear I bought on a whim and held on to stuff I can’t let go of as I am convinced that it will work for me at some point as it seems to work for everyone else! Take the vintage Astatic mic I bought earlier this year. I thought I had paid a fair amount of cash for it but some quick internet based research told me that I had gotten an absolute BARGAIN. Very pleased I was to have an actual Astatic as I’ve not had one since I was 17 years old. I actually had a band to gig test it with this time around. So with giggling schoolboy excitement I tested the mic with my amp choice; a Marshall AVT. Now, I know hat the Harp-tone junkies amongst you are saying right now: “That’s a gain-y amp! You wanna get a fully valved one.” I know it is and I know I do. However, I was well happy with my Marshall, an old CAD vocal mic and a noise reduction pedal until I got that old harp-tone itch again.
For the 8 years preceding my recent harp-tone odyssey I used a clean, cheap radio vocal mic that went straight into the PA. It was a clean ass sound and I could always be heard, never got any feedback/recirculation and didn’t have to lug a massive amp around.
My tone was sooo clean though… Squeaky clean, country clean!
Did I ever have any sound problems? No, I did not.
It was clean though.
I blame the boys in the band. I’m so easily led. They happened to mention that they had seen some old blues players with ‘those bullet mic things’. I explained what they were, how I’d had a bad experience twenty-something years ago and never gone back. Was it worth another go with an older head on my shoulders? Like I said, I’m easily led. So I looked around for an amp and a friend had one for sale for 20 quid. Worth a punt, I thought so I bought it, plugged my radio mic in and experienced what I had done all those years before when the volume pot would creep past the number 2: howls of feedback. I know, I thought, I have an old vocal mic in a drawer that is even DEAFER than the cheap radio mic I had been using. I plugged it in and gave it a blast. The squeals and howls came again but this time not as prominently. The tone was thin though, very thin and everything I read said I NEEDED reverb and/or delay. Never having been a fan of either of those effects, even on vocals, I shunned that idea and carried on regardless. I’d heard of a noise gate before and thought that might be an idea. A mate had one for sale for 20 quid (it’s the magic price round my way) so having plugged that it, turned the bass up, the treble down, the mid up a gnat’s cock and boom! It sounded great! So I thought…
I had a distorted harp-tone. At last. It was kinda raucous and kinda rough and ready but I now sounded like those skinny rockers who played guitar on my Dad’s records. I did not, however, sound like the harmonica players of old that my band mates wanted to hear from me. SO far my tone journey had led me to Rocksville circa 1979 when what they wanted was Bluesville circa 1959.
So I bought the bargain Astatic (this time costing a bit more than 20 quid) and played a full two numbers of a gig with it, unplugged it, plugged in my ancient vocal miv (not the radio mic I had ebayed that already) and haven’t looked back. That was until my wife spotted a vintage looking amp in a junk shop that her friend owns. ‘A find’ I thought to myself. I’ve seen stories on Facebook pages of people finding vintage amps in thrift stores etc and they turn out to be stonkingly good amps. This was my turn for a bit of awesome luck! They wanted £120 for it and it was an Electar amp, another valvestate this time made in the Gibson workshop, the shop owner said I could trial it before I made a decision to buy it. I took along my old mic and noise pedal and gave it some noise. Number 2 on the volume knob, no feedback. Number 3, 4, 5 and still no feedback. Number 7 was the feedback magic number. The sound was breaking up nicely and the amp tone had a warmth that the Marshall didn’t have. I think I liked it. Then I noticed a switch for a ‘boost’ channel. Volume down first then a little tap of that then volume slowly up again…what a beauty! It’s a lump though and I started getting hacked off lugging it around this festival season but it’s been totally worth it. No feedback, reasonable warm tone and lush overdrive/honk when I want it.
I guess in conclusion I’m really glad that I learnt my techniques before my tone, although maybe I should have grown them at the same time? My old Harmonica teacher David Michelsen used to say that if you don’t work on your acoustic tone and you sound shit, if you then play through an amp all you have is loud shit. I guess he had a point. I love my little cheap set up and I will think long and hard before I spend a friggin’ fortune on an all valve amp!
(I am actually saving up for one though!)
What has your tone journey been like?
Last year I attended the awesome ‘Blue Saturday in Bucks‘, this year I attended ‘Harping By The Sea’ for more Harmonica shenanigans.
Here’s what happened:
Back in February I attended ‘Harping By The Sea’ in Hove here in the UK. A one day Harmonica festival of tuition, masterclasses, jam sessions and concerts. A fine excuse to get away for the weekend and spend some time brushing up on my Harmonica skills. Practise is something I rarely get time to do with a young family, a full-time job and all the trappings of life. They are all welcome trappings, but some ‘me’ time was definitely needed in the bleakness of a British wintertime.
I filled up my 17 year old Beetle with gas and trundled on down to the south coast on a 3.5 hour journey that was both uneventful and at times pleasant. ‘Pleasant’ not being a term associated with British road travel, but at 5.30am on a Saturday in February it seemed like I had the roads to myself. Having read the travel advice on the excellent ‘Harping By The Sea‘ website I had planned ahead and booked my parking to a private driveway using my Justpark app. Gotta love the technology! A fifteen minute walk along Brighton and Hove’s glorious and historic seafront to the Brunswick in Hove and I was there.
Once inside the Brunswick, registration was only held up by my bumping into old friends and it was my fault there was a wait in the queue as I was bloody chatting! This was a well attended event and it was great to see so many new faces. Some familiar faces I hadn’t seen in more than a decade, John Vaughan being a stand out guy and between us we held up the line catching up on old times. Once registered I took a table and scouted round for more faces. Relief, the crew from ‘Blue Saturday in Bucks’ were there. Big Azza, Francis and Russ grabbed me a seat at their table and we caught up on the harmonica happenings since the BSiB festival the previous year. For anyone that hasn’t met Big Azza, you really need to. Azza is a total inspiration. Lately I’ve been calling myself a ‘has-been’ when anyone asks about my harmonica career. I was part of a band who did tour when I was much, much younger. I am always implying that my musical career is all over and done with now. Azza is a different story altogether; firstly he overcame throat cancer and did not even pick up the harmonica until he was two years older than I am now. Azza described to me how he dedicated time to teaching people the harmonica, formed bands, put himself out there and got a new lease on his life through playing the harmonica. His band was booked up for the rest of the year, three gigs a weekend! At this point in the year, my band The Harpoon Blues Band, had none at all. I was all woe is me until I heard all this and it made me wanna pick myself up, dust myself off and start all over again. Thanks Big Azza.
So onto the learning…
The advanced class is what I chose as I like to consider myself an advanced player. Always dodgy ground for me. What makes one an advanced player? Is it like social class and totally subjective? If you think you are advanced then are you? The organisers, Richard and Stuart made it clear in the welcome speech that we could change workshops at anytime if we felt that the workshop we were in wasn’t for us. I had my ‘get out of jail free’ card so I felt safe.
Cajun and zydeco were on the menu and boy was it an eye opener. Ably lead by an old acquaintance of mine, Aidan Sheehan it was a rip-roarer of a workshop. Aidan and I had met many years before on the judging panel at the Bristol Harmonica Festival in 2005 (I think it was 2005 anyhow!). He was judging and I was compere at the time, we got on great and he’s a very knowledgable chap. A multi-instrumentalist, Aidan plays harmonica, accordion and squeezeboxes all with the same ease and fluency on each. I had to concentrate to keep up, which was great, this was pushing me and my abilities. The work sheets Aidan had copied had the tab really clearly laid out and he led us through it all by the hand (metaphorically I might add). In no time at all we were making convincing zydeco and cajun noises. Loved it!
Over lunch attention was drawn to my T-Shirt. I was working at a T Shirt printers at the time and had fashioned myself a little ‘Harmonica Player‘ T Shirt as a heat transfer onto a black shirt. I’d stolen the initial design from a website and added a distressed look, changed the font slightly and boom: self-made designer T Shirt! Big Azza said that if I made a bunch more I’d be welcome to sell them at the next Blue Saturday event. I had a few more ideas I’d knocked up in illustrator in a slow moment at work the week before which I showed round the table on my phone. “I’d buy one of those!” and “Do they come in 4XL?” came the reactions. I put a pin in the idea and decided to give some serious thought to making my own brand of T Shirts. After all, what could be a more perfect combination; Harmonicas and clothing?! I’d found the perfect job.
After lunch it was Lee Sankey’s turn to put us through our paces in the advanced class. Richard had again chosen a very knowledgable and established player in Lee and I have always admired his harmonica playing (even if he does play the harp upside-down!). Lee focused initially on what mad an advanced player, so he asked us which of us considered ourselves proper advanced players.I put my hand up, not really noticing anyone else’s hands going up. I’m sure they went up I was just letting my anxiety show and not noticing anyone else. I managed to get myself singled out at this point. Lee was stating that as an advanced player we should be putting some light and shade into our playing and also should at least be able to do a 3 octave major scale on a diatonic harmonica. He pointed to me and asked me tif I’d like to play one. “no,” I said initially, not wanting to be singled out and have to play to a room crammed full of advanced harmonica players. “Can’t do it?” Lee asked me? Taking this last sentence like a red rag to a bull I played the scale from one end of the harp to the other. Thunderous applause echoed throughout the room. What had I done? It was just a scale! It seems that not everyone can do this and I had forgotten my own abilities. It was turning out to be a day of awesome learning for me.
As I said previously, it was a very well attended event. I’d not seen so many harmonica players in one place since the early days of the Bristol festival. Bloody brilliant to see and encouraging as I think sometimes our beautiful instrument is a dying art. It seems that the only thing that was dying was my knowledge of the community, its easy to isolate in my part of the world. A man from a very different part of the world is Jerome Godboo. This Canadian harpmeister was giving a masterclass that afternoon and I’m glad I caught it. I have to admit to having never heard of the man until the festival but I’m glad I’ve heard of him now. What a player. Jazzy licks with a bluesy twist, this man knows his altered tunings and gave us an insight into a regular gigging musicians experience and lifestyle. A very cool guy.
The evening meal was yet more discussion over what we had all learnt that day, Aidan’s cajun workshop being a favourite so far. After a semi-heated discussion over the use/need for overblows (me being for, the other person being against) the jam session loomed. I could feel the nerves creeping up me from the moment I heard sign ups had been called. I didn’t want to have gone all that way and not played as much as I could! It took some awesome encouragement from Lee Sankey to talk me into it in the end. I signed up to knock out a version of ‘The Blues Overtook Me’ by Charlie Musselwhite from his ‘Ace of Harps’ album. Opting for a slower more acoustic feel than the shiny, bouncy album track I only made one glaring error in playing and then sat down to enjoy the rest of the performers. It has to be said that my friend Mr John Vaughan is an outstanding Blues harmonica player, if you get chance then please check him out. I heard three requests for the video of his jam session slot before he’d even finished playing! His partner Yuki plays harmonica too, and gave the best rendition of Sonny Terry licks I have ever heard (better than Paul Lamb? I thought so). How I wish I could get ANYONE else in my house to play harmonica, but they won’t, John is a lucky guy!
I hung around as long as I could for the evening concert but the day was starting to take its toll on me. I thought it best to retire for the long drive home in the morning, my head full of new harmonica knowledge, my pockets full of new harmonicas and my wallet empty of cash. I caught Lee Sankey’s set (which included a blistering William Clarke tribute) and the start of Richard Taylor and The Blackjacks. Tight. As. Hell. Well worth a listen, especially for Richard’s understated harp playing and his interplay with the rest of the band. I don’t know but I’d wager they know each other pretty well to play that tight.
Thanks Richard and Stuart for putting this on, see you next year for definite, this time with my Harmonica-tees stall in tow.
Recently I attended the funeral of a very old friend of mine. Well, when I say ‘friend’ I’m not even sure what I mean by that anymore with this particular person. I’ve been very lucky and only attended a handful of funerals in my lifetime. Some might say that having reached the age of 39 with both parents alive and a full compliment of grandparents is very lucky indeed. I only lost my great grandparents in my late twenties. The prospects look good for my own longevity, if only I could learn to look after myself better. Having said all that, the funeral of the 78 year old man I am attending today had a mother who lived to be 102. The secret of her extraordinary long life; she quit smoking when she turned 80.
So, having a full compliment of parents and having attended only a smattering of funerals, how am I supposed to feel about the death and proceedings of someone who was really close to at one time in my life?
I remember at some point in my youth my father, being somewhat fascinated by Egyptology, told me about the god Anubis. Anubis attended to the recently departed souls, weighing their hearts. If their heart was light then the soul floated up to heaven, if heavy they descended to the underworld. I always thought this unfair. How could a person be entirely good all their life? As a child I was raised as a Christian and as such was taught that Jesus would forgive me my sins. I was also taught that it was probably best not to sin anyway, just in case. That always seemed a big ask for a me, especially given the circumstances I have often found myself in and the lot I was dealt in life. Today I find myself weighing my departed friend’s heart. Unlike Anubis I am not looking for the weight to be light so that it can float up to heaven. I am looking for the good and bad deeds from my friend’s life to even themselves out.
Thinking back in time, I’m becoming more certain that it is this train of thought that led to my subsequent atheism. I think that I wanted to be judged by an unfair system. Through childish eyes I hear myself screaming ‘it’s not fair!’ into the abyss of my distant youth. Eventually I came to judge myself more harshly within the confines of my own life, not waiting to be judged after my death by a mythological deity. I judged myself harshly as a child and gave up on being good, at times almost completely. My recently deceased friend never gave up on trying to be good. He always judged himself by his own system and lived by his own rules.
My friend’s name is (was) Norman and I first knew him as a Scout leader. I joined the Cub-Scouts the minute I was allowed to at age 6 and it subsequently consumed my life. Norman was a part-time leader, only turning up at the odd meet and attending camps as a extra man to help out the other leaders. Aged 11 I moved up to the Scouts and coincidentally, Norman became more involved in the group. Norman owned a large, white transit van that he allowed us to fill with kit to take to our annual summer camps. Being a patrol leader, I was allowed to sit in the cab with Norman on the way to the camp. Casually strewn on the dashboard of the van were two shiny mouth organs. I asked Norman if I could have a go, a question both he and I both joked about on many an occasion since. Long story short, I never put the harmonica down. We formed harmonica groups and traveled the world performing on stage and TV alike, Norman as our band manager and mentor. The first time Norman and I shared the joke we were standing in New York’s JFK airport and silly o’clock in the morning. The tail end of a grueling schedule of TV performances and touring. A tired and tour-worn Norman looked at me smiling and said, “Next time you see something you like on the dashboard of my van, bloody well leave it alone!” It always made my heart rise to believe that my actions that fateful day had in some way being responsible for all the great times and success we were having.
By age 16 I was a seasoned musician and traveler. I had spent nearly every waking hour playing the harmonica and every weekend traveling around to one gig or another. My parents had divorced when I was 12 and the fall out was devastating. My relationship with my mother soured and my father retreated to lick the wounds of their 12 year marriage. My mother needed me at home on weekends to look after my little sister and to keep the house while she worked. She was too tired to do anything after her long shifts. I wanted my own life and not to be a parent to her and my siblings. I needed a parent, I needed a way out. Music was the answer. Norman was the answer. Norman owned a Harmonica mail-order business that he was looking to take on the road to festivals etc. The perfect answer was that I would go and live at Norman’s house and work for him. As an Harmonica player of some note by then, I could sell Harmonicas to practically anyone. I also made myself useful round his house, cooking and cleaning up after his elderly mother. Norman paid me handsomely for this with both room and board.
As I turned 17 things had evolved nicely in our household to a secure routine of making a little bit of money and growing the business nicely. We drank more, ate more and had a great time. Norman loved playing devil’s advocate to any point that I cared to raise and in a humorous way helped me question so many things that I took for granted in my life. It was within the framework of this relaxed atmosphere that Norman made some disturbing confessions. I wouldn’t like to go into them in great detail, but dear reader know only this: Norman NEVER hurt anyone nor forced anyone to do anything against their will. Norman did, however, exploit his position of authority where children were concerned and gave in to a couple of temptations that he really shouldn’t have done. In retrospect I am able to see that these morbid confessions were little more than grooming. A grooming which I never gave in to and he never again pursued.
To this end I find myself weighing Norman’s heart on my own set of scales. On the day of his funeral I found myself smiling at the crass jokes he used to tell, his argumentative nature and his techno-phobia. His lack of personal hygiene raised a smile in me that couldn’t go away. The generosity he showed, not only to me, but to everyone he came in contact with; all these things and many more aspects of Norman’s personality made up the good side of the scales.
The heavy, in my estimation, was evened out. In conclusion I think it is not only possible to love the good and the bad in someone, but it is also possible to love the good enough to forgive the bad.
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.
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.
Upon 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…