Friday, 28 September 2007

America Must Be Destroyed

Did I succeed in getting your attention with the post title, then? Oh, go on, just a little bit, hmm? Hope so, anyway, because in a fit of pathetic egomania I've decided to try to attract more readers to my outpourings of nonsense, and to that end I'm employing the lowest and most diabolical technique, beloved of the mass media - deliberately courting controversy. Well, how hard can it be?

Ok, let's about we start with a nice easy warm-up, (like a few steadily-paced scales up, down & across the fingerboard to loosen the hands up, followed by a sip of Earl Grey tea) - see that George W. Bush? He's almost certainly the least-skilled or intellectually accomplished fellow ever to have attained the office of President of the United States of America! While, let's not forget, simultaneously being the super-intelligent, demonic mastermind behind the secret enslavement of earth by the lizard people from the 8th dimension, using the power of the great financial houses, talk radio, and the wicked degeneracy that is korfball (it's not quite netball, it's not quite basketball, what the hell is it? I'm now so confused I'll vote for giant flesh-eating lizards - you see how easy it is?) to carry out their fiendish plans. (NB: When courting controversy, consistency is entirely optional.)

Good. Soft political target done, must be time for religion! (Some string-skipping exercises now, together with 3-octave major and minor arpeggios. Then, perhaps, a jaffa cake). Anyone who really, truly believes that their omnipotent supernatural being of choice has the inclination to materially influence the outcome of any given sporting event, is most likely in for severe disappointment when they snuff it, since that's when they'll discover that (bizarrely and extremely improbably) the old Norse had it sussed all along, and the assorted deities are far too busy smiting giants, getting drunk, eating golden apples and shagging (sometimes with the aforementioned giants) to mess about with the World Kabaddi Cup. Rather than trust in divine intervention, in sport we should instead follow the sage advice of Lance Armstrong, and "run like you stole something". Always worked for me when playing rugby - I'm very much medium-sized, you see.

There. Must be at least as offensive as Kate Nash's singing by now, surely? What next? Oh, yes, here's a good one. Children's literature. (Here we reach the controversy equivalent of a vicious Steve Bailey exercise I saw in a magazine once, where you place your index finger at the would-be-first-fret-but-it's-a-six-string-fretless-so-there-ain't-no-wire-to-make-it-easy position on the low 'B' string, play the resulting 'C' note - and hold it - then proceed to play 'E-Eflat-D, B-Bflat-A, Fsharp-F-E', etc back down across the neck from the high "C" string [fingering 4-3-2 on each string], with all the notes sounding perfectly, and without losing the low "C" at any point. There are then further, even more sadistic variations on this pattern, but they're too horrible to describe on a website that's accessible by those under the age of 21. After this, I recommend lying-down in a darkened room, with a warm flannel over the face, until you feel sufficiently recovered to sip some thin broth).

All the books that feature cutesy, fluffy-wuffy animals - animals that can talk, wear clothes, live in semi-detached houses and have affairs with the next-door-neighbour's baby-sitter, with names like "Mifflesey", that sort of thing - are written by authors who are funded by PETA, so that when kids find out where their meat really comes from they'll recoil in horror ("But Daddy, we're eating Bella the ballet-dancing moo-moo cow!"), and become strict vegans as a result. This is just one, especially cunning, strand of the International Vegetarian Conspiracy (IVC). Mind you, the IVC itself was originally a creation of the Global Meat Marketing Complex, in an even-more-cunning bid to gain sympathy for their illicit campaign to fill supermarket bread with low-grade-mince, thus solving the European Mince Mountain problem for ever - and all at tax-payers' expense! (You can never have too many plot twists and turns, or indeed remarks in parentheses, if you intend to successfully woo, marry, move to a small house away from the stresses of the inner-city and eventually have kids with controversy. Sure, it's a lifestyle choice, but it's one that takes commitment, goddammit.)

There is, however, a far greater controversy than all of these combined. One which, when uttered, has been known to precipitate minor wars. And it is this:

Fender Basses aren't that great. They're over-priced, and aren't particularly sonically interesting.

Ok, I've said it. The incendiary words are out there, burning the pixels on your monitor and threatening to unleash the wrath of all the demons of hell (assuming, of course, that such outlandish creatures exist, which is a pretty big assumption given the evidence).

Naturally, there are counter-arguments to be addressed:

* "They're Classics" - yes, they are. So is an Aston Martin DB5, but I'd rather take a sharp bend at slightly-too-high speed in a current Ford Mondeo, thanks awfully. 'Tis the same in the bass world - design has moved on. The classics are indeed there for reference, but if we haven't improved on them in the last 50-odd years then our modern luthiers aren't worth spit, frankly. I've tried-out quite a few of these beasts, and they simply don't justify the mythos, or the wallet-spanking.

* "It Was Good Enough For Jaco" - absolutely. As a bass player, I'm not even fit to enter the room containing the late Mr. P's boots, let alone apply my tongue to them, but ask yourself - what was the competition like at the time? Back in '76, Fender were still the big daddy of bass, with Rickenbacker probably as main challenger. Nowadays there's far more high-end choice, extended range instruments, etc,etc. Warwick, for instance, only started in 1982, Conklin in 1990, Lakland in 1995. Who's to say Jaco would even have bothered with a Fender if he'd been born 20 years later?

* "I Want to Sound Like [insert name of chosen bass-god Fender endorsee]" - fine, but don't forget the pernicious influence of your own fingers on your tone. Not to mention having exactly the right amplifiers, outboard gear, and sneaky modifications made by the bass-god's tech-slaves. I myself could grab virtually any semi-decent Strat, plug it into a reasonable Fender amp, and guarantee to dial-in a fair impression of Mark Knopfler...but I'm also absolutely certain that if the great man himself then took over, you'd hear a tenfold increase in tone straight away (not that I'm a completely crap guitarist, mind, more fair-to-middling).

I'm not saying they're BAD basses, just that, for the money, I wouldn't be interested in one, nor would I ever recommend them to anyone else. I did some quick online research, and found a few alternatives in the same price bracket as the standard Fender American models (sorry, but the made-in-Mexico ones just...don't. The Fender Japan Marcus Miller model's nice, but isn't any cheaper.).

This is the point at which anyone from the USA reading this can fall off their internet-café-stool laughing at our prices (special offers have been excluded - I'm sure individual deals can be found, but for comparison purposes these are accurate): Fender American Jazz & Precision ranges start at about £650, and rise rapidly from that point!

* Musicman SubIV passive £699
* Lakland Skyline 44-01 £649
* Sandberg range, £699 - £875
* Warwick Corvette Standard IV Bubinga
* Warwick Corvette Double Buck $$ IV US Swamp Ash £629
and a nice example if you want more strings?
* Yamaha John Myung RBX6JM2 (6-string) £689

For something completely different, how about a Ned Steinberger WAV Electric Upright for £699? Or upping the price a bit, you could get a headless Status made to your personal specifications for £904.

My personal favourite, though, in the it's-basic-but-it's-not-a-Fender stakes, is the brand-new British Lodestone Primal Bass which looks positively stunning-yet-familiar, and can be had from £749.

Alas, I don't own any of the above, but I did get my TobyPro 6-string and a decent Ashdown combo for less than the price of the cheapest Jazz I could find, with enough change left over to pay for half of my Tech21 VTBass preamp pedal.

If you've got the cash, and you really desperately want one, then please, by all means, buy a Fender bass (or even one of their incredibly overpriced guitar amps). But if you're open to suggestion, why not give a more "controversial" choice a whirl, instead?

Monday, 24 September 2007

How To Be Invisible

Back in the icy-cold February of 1996, I had my first ever experience of being completely ignored by an audience. It's happened often enough since then, (yet another of the myriad, mundane and minor hazards of corporate function musical prostitution. To be fair to them, why the hell should those guys give a flying monkey's danglers about whatever cover version the band are grinding mercilessly through, when they've been stuck in seminars on "Envisioneering Mission-Critical Synergies Within a Quality-Driven Brand Structure" all day, and there's a free bar, goddamit?), but up until then I'd only ever come across moderate delight, grudging acceptance, or outright hostility (we've all had our "YOU'RE the Good Old Boys?!" moments, though, haven't we?). I'd have to say that, while offering less potential for actual physical harm than the audience detesting you, a night of mass indifference is probably far more mentally damaging.

The venue for that night was another ground-breaker for the band - our first visit to Inverness. We had been booked to play for 2 nights at Lafferty's - a fairly generic 'Plastic Paddy' fake-agricultural-implement and low-quality-limerick adorned boozer in the town centre. (Apparently it has gone the way of "Sinners'" - see "Who Are You" from August 14th for details of that establishment - and is now Deeno's Sports Bar. Bet you're all a-quiver at that truly seismic revelation, eh?) Alas, and alack, we'd missed the first night due to that peculiar Scottish weather phenomenon known as "occasional blizzards".

We'd set off up the A9 in plenty of time, for once. (For the uninitiated: it's one of the most tedious and dangerous roads in Scotland if you're genuinely trying to get somewhere, rather than pootle along in traditional tourist fashion. It's the main route to Perthshire & the Highlands, yet only becomes dual-carriageway in very few places. Combine this with the heavy traffic - especially road freight, caravans, and farm vehicles, and you have a recipe for some of the most stressful road conditions in the country. Not helped by the large number of suicidal nutters who stake their lives on being able to overtake as many cars as possible at one time, (at night, and in heavy rain, naturally!), then bullying their way back into the line at the last available moment - i.e. when the air turbulence from the oncoming juggernaut is sufficiently close to shove their car backwards a metre or so. You wouldn't want their deaths on your conscience - I know, a little maiming wouldn't be so bad, or if it was only their car that got mangled beyond recognition, but you can't be absolutely certain that'll be the case, let them in, while swearing an oath on the blood of your maternal-second-cousin that you won't be so nice to the next one. But you will, for exactly the same reasons as before. It's a vicious cycle. That'll teach you to be nice.)

Unfortunately for us, while we were heading north the police closed the Drumochter Pass due to drifting snow. Undaunted, we decided to head across to Dundee, then try to reach Inverness via Aberdeen. But they closed that route, too. So, prompt about-turn and head home to Edinburgh...or not, as it turned out. Now the road home was shut south of us as well! Some urgent phone calls by Martin and he'd landed us a sing-for-your-supper-and-petrol-money gig in St. Andrews, after which we (very slowly & carefully) drove to Dundee, where we crashed (us, not the van) at Martin's friend Justin's flat for the night. Belated thanks for that one, Mr. Justin.

We finally made it into Inverness late the next afternoon, and on arrival at the bar were greeted by the sight of one of Billy Connolly's famous 'rubber men' being dragged out of the place with his arms flopping against his head, and gently seated on the pavement outside with his back against the wall, ready for collection by taxi. While we started to unload our gear, well-dressed restaurant-goers and bag-laden shoppers heading home just stepped-over his outstretched (one-shoe-missing, I seem to recall? wonder why?) legs without giving him a second glance. Definitely a classy joint then, this Lafferty's.

Inside was an unusually diverse mix of folk - just-off-work 'suits', a secretaries' hen party, baggy-jeaned indie students, smart-casual refugees from an LLBean catalogue, a few goths, oil workers off the rigs, and an obvious crowd of hard-drinking regulars. Things didn't start too well when the punters realised that the pool table had to be packed away in order for us to set up, leading to a small chorus of disgruntlement aimed at the band - a small omen of what lay in store.

For once, all our equipment seemed to be in good working order (even though we were feeding into the pub's own p.a. system, which was a regular source of "Why-the-@@@@-is-there-no-@@@@ing-sound-coming-out-of-the- @@@@ing-speakers-when-I've-got- @@@@ing-perfect-levels-over-here?" moments over the years), and we launched into our opening set of tunes/soundcheck with great gusto. From where I was sitting everything sounded within the bounds of acceptable tuning, decency, and (comparitively poor) taste, and we ripped through "Paddy's Bondage Trousers" & the "Jig of Sluts" (spot the peurile band names for ever-so-slightly played-to-death tunes) in fine style, finishing with (for us) something of a flourish.

To be met by an overwhelming wave of total silence. Nothing. Not a bloody sound. Nobody clapped, nobody booed, nobody even got up and went to the toilet as a critical response. Not even the merest hint of a parentage-and-musical-ability-questioning insult wafted in our direction. Which was odd. And it's not as if the place was empty, or anything nearing it. Quite the contrary, it seemed to be pretty popular - two-thirds full, at least.

"Not to worry", we thought (we had a strange collective telepathy in those days, another side-effect of the van's exhaust fumes), "We can win them over with some fine, rollicking songs, performed with utmost vigour and gay abandon! Then they will festoon us with acclaim and adoration!".

Wrong again. No matter what material we tried, the audience responded (or rather, didn't) in exactly the same way. It was as if they'd taken a ballot, and had decided to 'listen-to-rule' - the rule in question being, ignore the buggers. The longer the gig went on, we threw more and more energy into our playing, only to have it all crash into the massive wall of apathy and disinterest they'd created, and fall in a wobbly heap just in front of the monitors, calling out piteously for its mum.

Eventually, when it became apparent that they'd won, and we were broken, invisible men, sadly and quietly playing a last couple of songs we-knew-they-knew-and-we-despised-but-usually-managed-to-hide-it in a gesture of submission to the punters' will, a solitary couple took the piss royally by waltzing across the floor in front of us - the only acknowledgement of our presence during the whole gig.

And they got a sodding round of applause from the rest of the crowd when they were done.

We went back and played some perfectly average gigs there over the next few years, and had truly horrendous cold-shouldering in other places (at least one example of which will be related at great, and doubtless unnecessarily tedious, length in future), but we were marked that night in Lafferty's. We all were. Scarred, if you will.

They say you never forget your first time. It's true. Because no matter how hard you try, some idiot's bound to come along and write about it on t'internet in a desperate attempt to raise a few laughs.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Rockin' All Over The World

When and where was the last time you encountered some music that really made an impression on you ? You know what I'm talking about, the kind of stuff that makes your mouth hang open involuntarily like a "Big Mouth Billy Bass", (how much precious landfill space worldwide are those millions of animatronic piscine-spawn-of-Justin Timberlake - if there has to be a "Satan", no matter how unlikely the whole concept may be, I nominate the mediocre-beatboxing, peachfuzz-bearded, 'even-whiter' Michael Jackson-clone - responsible for? If you're unfortunate enough to own one of these monstrosities - Billy Bass, not JT...although it could be appropriate for him, too - you might fancy a go at trying this. Or if you're less electronics-minded, how about some 'mallet therapy'* instead?), then fills you with a burning desire either to grab your instrument-of-choice and try to play along, or immediately list all your musical gear on ebay and take up bonsai gardening.

For me, this has been occurring on an almost-daily basis, virtually every time I log in to my MySpace site. I've only been signed-up for a touch over 3 months, but already the diversity and quality of incredibly talented musicians I've come across have been far greater than I ever expected. Cool (often ambient, sometimes ) looping from Singapore, France, Sweden & London, powerful symphonic metal from Finland & Italy (I was entirely clueless that these two nations seem to be locked in a titanic struggle for the "None More Rock" world title), and numerous gifted solo instrumentalists from all over the place...and that's just a few of the folk on my "friends" list. (For anyone who's reading this on my "Mid-Life Bassist" blog, I can't recommend checking out these people highly enough. Previously undiscovered delights and wonders abound...and you might even find some of my stuff passably tolerable, too ).

This is, of course, only a highly self-selecting & very shallow scraping of the surface of what's out there on the internet, but it serves to highlight the relative paucity of choice offered to us by mainstream music stores and radio broadcasting here in the UK. I know there are a few radio shows devoted to a more eclectic and interesting mix of music, but these are few and far between - and "Late Junction" on BBC radio 3 should now be called "Far-Too-Bleedin'-Late Junction", since they've shoved it back to an 11.15pm slot, damn their eyes! (oh, and their ears - it is radio, after all) . (In case anyone was unaware, radio is still an incredibly popular medium - possibly thanks to the expansion of digital stations - even if they do seem to be 14 varieties of 'vanilla' - with 91% of the adult population tuning in for an average of just under 2 hours a week - Rajar).

We've long been far too obsessed with what is supposedly "cool", being ironically 'knowing', wearing the right shoes (not to mention being seen in the all the right re-hab clinics). Then there's the current crop of identikit bland guitar bands, such as the Kasabi-Razor-Athlete-Chiefs, who sadly blend into each other with ridiculous ease without ever saying anything insightful (I'd never expect 'originality' - with the sheer volume of rock 'n' roll music that's been created in the last 50 years, that would be an unfair demand to place on the 'commercial' market), or even coming up with a single decent guitar solo between them.

What fascinates me most, perhaps, about this going-global-through-technology phenomenon is the question of who constitutes your audience? When I was in my late teens and early 20's, I spent a lot of time on trains and in railway stations, and I'd regularly wonder about who all these other people travelling like me were, where they were going, what lives they lead - people whose faces you'd see for a few brief moments as you pulled-out, or as your trains passed in opposite directions. Imagining what it felt like to be a rock star, (ahh, the dreams of youth again! ), with thousands (or millions - hey, it was a dream, why not make it a big one!) of people you'd never know, or even meet, who owned your music, feeling that it meant something special, something personal to them. Record-company-funded touring does, of course, provide some small degree of audience contact (or perhaps a great deal of extremely intimate contact, depending on the artist/band concerned), but now it's easily possible to have a truly worldwide fan base without ever possessing the means to travel to meet any of them. This could, arguably, bring a greater degree of "detachment" than before, although not having a personality-cult to call my own (yet!), I'm not in the best position to judge.

I must admit that in a vaguely related (but very minor & insignificant) way, I'm very curious as to who is actually bothering to read these blog entries...? (MySpace claims there are one or two of you - assuming its stats are at all reliable). As a result, I couldn't resist attaching Google Analytics on my Blogspot page - it doesn't reveal any sensitive/personal info, honest - which enables me to see where on the planet people are visiting from, (not that most of them hang around to read it for very long - it tells you that kind of ego-crushing data, too...! ), although it does tend to clump folk into the nearest 'city', even if it's a good 20 miles away or more...

So I'd like to end with a small request - if anyone's persevered and read down as far as this, please would you leave a comment saying who you are (pseudonyms are cool), and where you're located. Any criticism welcomed (I know I'm an acquired taste ), but only if you've got the time and feel like making the effort.


*'Mallet Therapy' (tm) is my own small contribution to medical science, developed in collaboration with my wife, who is a physiotherapist. It's a system of drug-free pain relief to be utilised when all conventional therapeutic approaches have failed. You simply locate the afflicted area/joint/limb/etc, then vigorously apply a large mallet to the patient with significant force, until all the original pain sensations have disappeared. Has been found to be particularly effective in treating cases of severe malingering. May have minor side-effects, such as bruising, bleeding, double vision, etc, but these are only temporary, and should not require more than 2 or 3 days of intensive hospital treatment to eradicate.

Monday, 17 September 2007

Eat The Rich

Last Thursday it was bottom-rung-of-the-professional-music-ladder transportation, today it's another key staple of function-band existence - food! Napoleon's army may have marched on their stomachs, but ceilidh-bands don't reel, jig, waltz or 2-step (let alone bleedin' march) unless theirs are at the very least half-full at the start of the gig. Trouble is, a great many of the events we played at over the years were held in dirty great tents (DGTs) pitched outside small country houses - or on any sufficiently local and passably-flat expanse of what once was grass, but by the time we arrived (usually a decent 10 minutes or so before we were due to start ), had been churned into a simultaneously sticky and slippery mud by the vehicles of guests, caterers, and the people who were hired to erect the aforementioned DGT.

This could leave the band with something of a dilemma - what, when, and where to eat? (and were the forks worth stealing? ). The sheer remoteness of many locations often meant there wasn't a chippie available (standard fallback option no. 1 - experience [e.g. trips to Largs, or the 'delightful' Langstane's in Aberdeen] suggests that even the greasiest, lukewarm fish 'n' chips can be partially offset by consuming plenty of fresh fruit and semi-skimmed milk. Mind you, if there aren't any chippies to be found, your chances of locating a decent grocery store are plummeting towards 'none' at a fair rate of knots, so good luck with that one), and many of Scotland's roads are entirely bereft of petrol stations or "services" of any sort (so no Ginsters for Martin! ). [ Quick note - "Little Chef" meals do, in fact, qualify as "food", but that's based on inconclusive research results. Any future investigation into their products is conducted entirely at your own risk and expense account ].

You could adopt the solution favoured by one of our drummers, Nick, and myself - pre-preparing vast containers of pasta or rice cooked with almost anything, so long as it had come into prolonged contact with a great deal of garlic. (Hey, anything to combat the van's exhaust fumes. And always entertaining when you're the one liaising with the event organisers/tanked-up best man/glowering holders of the purse-strings.). Or you could trust to luck, and take a gamble on topping-up the mars bar you grabbed as you dashed out of the door with a visit to the half-time buffet. (Assuming, of course, that the band was invited to partake. And waited until the visitors from the planet Gargantua at table 38 had finished loading 3 plates each with everything that actually resembled a known foodstuff, leaving a couple of battered ham sandwiches - polystyrene white bread with a smear of industrial-grade bike-lubricant margarine - and the dish of mystery fried "chicken-things" for we vagabonds).

Buffets were a constant source of surprise and wonder. Usually the surprise was that the stuff in breadcrumbs that looked as if it might once have seen part of a chicken, in fact contained half-a-prawn and some soggy broccoli, and the wonder was that someone had stumped up at least £8-a-head for such crap. Mind you, to be completely fair, the only time I ever contracted food poisoning from a buffet the blame went on some dodgy salmon eaten at Scotland's AA "Hotel of the Year 2005", (go on, look it up!), so I'll lay off the generic mystery-food-buffet-bashing for now.

On the (very!) rare occasion, the buffet turned out to be far superior to anything we could have rustled-up for ourselves. At one wedding in Nethy Bridge, I was greeted by the groom's mother with the words "Would you prefer a glass of red or white? Oh, here, just take a bottle...what would the rest of the band like?", which were followed by an order to "dig in" to a table-the-length-of-the-hall display of home-cooking to die for, including some of the finest chocolate mousse I've ever tasted. (In order to understand the significance of this, you first have to know that I'm a certified chocoholic, and that the offering of chocolate mousse - of whatever quality - to the band was an event as infrequent as any of us 'pulling' at a gig... ). Needless to say, that was an excellent start to a rather splendid evening. (Not that any of us 'pulled', you understand. That would have turned it into a "miraculous" evening! )

One night, though, we really thought we'd hit the jackpot. We were playing at the renowned Gleneagles hotel, and on top of the agreed fee, we were each given a meal voucher to the tune of £20! Excellent, we thought, we can have a really nice 3-course meal and maybe have enough change left over for a drink (it was a few years back, don't forget ). So off we pootered in high spirits, all the way through the enormous building to the "family restaurant" at the back (i.e. the 'cheapest' one where they try to hide folk such as we 'vagrant scum in a tinker's van' from the higher-paying guests). Imagine our dismay when, having opened the menus, we realised the vouchers wouldn't even cover some of the individual main courses (I was going to use the word "entrées", but decided it was too poncey. Probably a subconscious reaction to the whole Gleneagles culture).

And then came something I'd never experienced before, an act of such subservience, of pointless obsequiousness it still makes me slightly uncomfortable just thinking about it. Now, in general, we Scots aren't too keen on the American table-waiting style of over-familiar servility and general fawning (on the strict orders of the management). A bit of off-hand, grudging, rudeness, mixed with occasional exasperation at our culinary ignorance - that's more what we're after! So when the waitress arrived with our orders, and promptly started unfolding everyone's napkins and placing them in their laps for them, (am I the only one to find this just a wee bit of an intrusion, as well as completely demeaning for the waitress? Why should she have to guddle around, uninvited (), in my crotch area? I have fully-functioning limbs, fer feck's sake! I do not find napkin-unfolding and application beneath my overblown dignity!), we were all a bit shocked, but I was far enough away from her, fortunately, to be able to grab mine before she could get to it and perform her small act of ritual self-degradation.

Still, I suppose that's all part of what people who stay at Gleneagles are paying for. Someone else's minor humiliations to make themselves feel 'special'. And lucky old us were getting it for free...

Ah, well. Never mind. There's always the time in Gifford when I scrounged a free double-portion of strawberry pavlova for everyone before we'd even begun humping the gear into the DGT. Now that was definitely going to be a good gig...!

(N.B. Nobody 'pulled' that night, either)

Thursday, 13 September 2007

2-4-6-8 Motorway

So many other titles I could have used for this piece - "Highway Star", "Highway to Hell", or maybe even "Arrested for Driving While Blind" (by ZZ Top)...but somehow Tom Robinson's classic mid-tempo rocker about driving an old truck in crap weather, service stations, and moral advice for motorcyclists seemed most appropriate. Granted, the morality bit is a touch superfluous, but low-grade prone-to-inexplicable-breakdown vehicles, offensively-expensive almost-coffee in small plastic "warning: contents may be hot and taste vile" cups from a dismal concrete bunker calling itself "Services", and horizontal sleet battering through ill-fitting window can only mean one thing - it's time to talk about all the time we musicians spend in that mobile oasis of joy and close-knit companionship, the band van!

Quick digression (no, really, there's bound to be a far longer one further down) - if anyone's interested (?!), there's a website that "aims to catalogue and review all UK service areas". Including photos. Quite surprising how many memories a brief trawl through their listings brought back. We really did break down far, far too often. And purchase way too many crap hot drinks (of an often indeterminable nature). Poor old Martin even developed a severe addiction to Ginsters' "Melton Mowbray Pork Pies" (it was so bad he almost started dating an overpaid, professionally-anorexic junkie in a desperate bid to become more famous and get his Ginsters for free) - and just you try getting the NHS to take you seriously when you go looking for help kicking that. Smoking? No problem. Alcohol? Right this way, sir. Ginsters? what...? (He's much better now, you'll be glad to know, although still suffers the occasional relapse).

Practically everyone who's ever tried to climb the mountains of the music industry has had to spend many hours stuck in the lowest foothills, toiling along a never-ending b-road ("It's a shortcut to the A713, I've done it hundreds of time, it'll save us miles") at velocities that, while pushing the limits of the vehicle's capabilities (not to mention the safety of those in the back, perched between some bass bins and the spikier parts of the drum kit), aren't likely to trouble the speed cameras any time soon. For that reason, I'm not going to indulge in a litany of not-very-amusing-at-the-time-but-now-you've-just-got-to-laugh van-related disaster stories, since we've all been there, seen it, wished it hadn't happened to us, and been very relieved that when the police finally pitched up, they seemed to find it all terribly amusing...

So I won't be mentioning the time the steering 'kingpin' snapped at 65mph on a descent heading into Aberdeen, the repeated radiator overheating problems we finally solved when we discovered that a previous owner had removed the thermostat (!), or the severe winter spent chugging all over the more northerly (and rugged) bits of Scotland without any functioning heating – leading to a 'skin' of ice forming over the entire outside of the van. Nope. Nor will I be listing all the parts that were held in place only by judicious applications of gaffer-tape (wing-mirror, brake lights, exhaust pipe, etc, etc). Indeed not. Suffice to say, my collection of photographs entitled "Fun With Vans" is a great deal more extensive and varied than was good for our cash-flow situation.

I'd rather waste our precious time together on this planet by revealing the worst & best of being stuck for long periods in a blue-and-rust coloured Mercedes van with the collective idiocy known as the WildGeese.

The bad bits were mostly confined to the cold, the darkness, and the smell. There were the odd outbreaks of in-band tension, but these were only sporadically directly van-related, so they don't strictly count for now. Being half-frozen much of the time was something you got used to, and could cope with easily enough by bringing-along rugs, sleeping-bags, that sort of thing (rock & roll!). The darkness, however, was an unfortunate, but inevitable, result of us being sensible, and geography. You see, we installed old coach seats in the van (it was a long-wheelbase, so there was loads of room), but this lead to the rear-most person being so far back as to make reading well-nigh impossible (there being no windows in the sides or rear-doors). You couldn't see much forwards because of the middle-row seat directly in front of you, not that there was often a great deal to see. Apart from a brief, glorious spell in what passes for summer, the nights fair draw in early around here, so by the time we would get out of Edinburgh and be heading towards "scenery", it was usually so gloomy out as to be practically invisible anyway.

Which brings us to the smell. This was a heady mixture of slightly-less-than-entirely-fragrant musicians, greasy 'food', gear that was impregnated with the stale cigarette fug of hundreds of pubs, and exhaust fumes. Not pleasant, but you stopped noticing it after a while...only for the exhaust gases to start making you feel sick if the journey was long enough. Some of the previously mentioned in-band tension was caused by minor disputes over precisely whose turn it was in the back seat, exactly how long they had sat there, and why did he always seem to get to ride 'shotgun'?

Once you got past those little difficulties, though, there were plenty of laughs to be had. One of our favourite games was making-up assorted songs (rudeness obligatory) about whoever was driving - Western-style movie themes, oddly enough, being the most common. Martin (see above) and I whiled away one trip by pondering what the 'porn' version of Star Trek ought to be like (at this point I should point out that as soon as we entered the van, and the journey was officially 'started', our collective mental ages plummeted rapidly to the level of smutty 12-year-olds - if that. I've heard that we weren't an isolated case, either - I think it's a reasonably universal 'bloke' thing). Something along the lines of "Sex Trek - The Next Penetration" with 'Captain Jean-Luc Prickhard' was about the best we came up with, as I recall...?

Then there were some great 'nature' moments - spotting deer, the perennial A9 suicidal bunnies, birds of prey sitting on the crossbar of the football goals in Kyleakin, a badger crossing the road, having a huge owl swoop down right in front of us, taking a break (aka having a piss around the side of the van) at 3am on a clear winter's night in the middle of the Drumochter Pass, and marvelling at the incredible panorama of stars revealed in the complete absence of light pollution. Until a southbound juggernaut came thundering past, lit up like the ultimate gay disco.

The best aspect for me, however, was the journey home itself. We did a lot of work up in places like Inverness, Fort William, and suchlike, and to save money we always drove straight back home after the gig. I was entrusted with the vital job of keeping the driver awake - partly through regular caffeine & chocolate infusions, partly by irregular prodding (fork optional), but mostly by talking bizarre comedy nonsense to them, often for hours at a time. Thus did we share the important realisation that some of the supermarket delivery lorries are not what they seem - no, they're part of a secret government project, carrying around the genetically-engineered giant badgers who actually do all the digging for new road-building projects. Now, we've all been past miles of cones, and seen the empty diggers,etc with not a labourer in sight many times, haven't we? And yet these roads still appear, apparently without anyone ever actually working on them. What more proof do you need? Badgers, I tell thee..

I don't think it caused those poor souls stuck in the driver's seat any lasting damage. Probably.

Monday, 10 September 2007

Mr. Bad Example

Tonight I have little to offer save a cautionary tale - a story of underachievement and insufficient ambition, of arriving at an apparent dead-end through deliberately ignoring the regular and prominent warning signs. It may contain the odd spark of usefulness for younger musicians, (or anyone with kids), whereas the more "experienced" among us may simply tut, shake their greying heads (like mine - bald[ing] is also a valid option), and mutter "silly sod" under their breath before returning to their crosswords and knitting plectrum-cosies (mine are tartan - subtle, muted shades, mind - but definitely tartan).

In short, this is a heavily-abridged, highly-biased, and occasionally censored account of the personal failings that got me where I am today, musically. It's also going to be relatively light in the humour department. Sorry 'bout that. Normal disservice should be resumed later.

There are two key flaws to my character that I've embraced far too willingly and often over the last 20 years or so, and they complement each other perfectly when it comes to performing acts of self-sabotage.

Firstly, with the one exception of the Citizen Cain album, I've never fully committed myself to any musical project I've been involved with - this is, to some extent anyway, my parents' fault. (Ah! See how he blames the parents! Cuts his poor mother's heart with the sharp end of a vegetable-peeler it does! Can't face up to taking the responsibilty for himself, that's what it really is, you mark my, wait a minute, I don't have a 'Yiddishe Mama'...). *

When I was 17, (it was 1986, and a very average year as I recall), my over-riding ambition was to be a classical singer. I genuinely had the voice (well, the makings of a good enough voice - males don't reach vocal maturity until they're about 26 or so), but I'd had a sensible Scottish middle-class upbringing, and the advantages that came with attending a good "independent" school, so believed in all the usual (highly sensible) advice about "always having something to fall back on".

Except it's not in any way "sensible". It's nonsense. 'Received wisdom' of the worst order, because unless you're one of the world's most single-mindedly determined (and not in the slightest bit apathetic) teenagers, and can resist it's blandishments, you're infected with it's uncertainties at an age when you haven't yet developed the faculties you need to see through it. If anyone out there is thinking about taking the same course I did, and postponing your musical dreams until you've gone to university and achieved a sensible degree that'll make you more employable (hah!), should your ragtime-punk tuba style not get very far, then DON'T!! And if you're a parent who's trying to talk their child out of their goal, however ridiculous it almost certainly is, well, shame on you. There aren't many things I truly regret about my life (some of my friends may be surprised by that statement), but giving-up that ambition is definitely the biggest one.

Now, I fully appreciate that we all need to earn money to survive, etc, so having a "proper" job is a necessary evil to support our musical habits, so long as we recognise it for what it is - a means to an end. As soon as it becomes any more than that, then we have a potential conflict of interests. Work night out (karaoke ahoy!) vs. intense band rehearsal...ahhh, but it's only this once. The other guys won't mind... and of course, the same goes double for the bewildering array of other distractions and amusing diversions that can present themselves on a daily basis.

I've been in a couple of bands that were good, but could have been so much better if there had simply been a small increase in my (and a few others') commitment to what we were doing. And ultimately, once you start slacking on rehearsals, not pushing yourself to learn so much (any?!) new material, not chasing gigs quite so hard, things can go downhill faster than Jethro Tull's eponymous "Fat Man".

Which is all compounded if you, like me, suffer from a desperate tendency to spread-yourself-too-thin. Personally, I love sport. At one point I was training 26 hours a week for my masochism-of-choice, rowing. I was incredibly fit, (which felt pretty damn good), but it was taking up more than an entire day per week of my life! Now, that's fine if all you want to do is to get to the Olympics (I didn't even come close), but when you try to mix that with music, theatre, comedy - oh, and getting a degree (a 2:1, thanks for asking, although I've no idea how I scraped that in the amount of time I actually devoted to studying, except to say it wasn't exactly bio-chemistry or applied physics), you're not very likely to reach your potential in any of them. And when you stumble out of the cosseted undergraduate-student lifestyle, trying to be the great "all-rounder" is well-nigh impossible.

That, however, is precisely what I tried to do until 2003, when I took on the role of full-time house-bloke-daddy, the ceilidh-come-whatever band fell apart (two-thirds of the band moved away, in opposite directions), and I gradually stopped doing...well, everything, unfortunately. Up until then, I kept on shifting my attention - getting involved in amateur dramatics (as previously partially documented), trying to learn new instruments rather than focus on improving what I already knew, taking up olympic-style weightlifting, writing & performing live comedy on radio - (after a couple of years of odds and ends I was booked for a 4-show run of hour-long live broadcasts [anchored by Dougie Vipond, no less...] one summer, but inevitably the 2nd show clashed with a band gig, and replacing me would have cost the guys a double wage - bass & ceilidh 'caller', which would have been unfair on them,so I went with the band. And promptly got dropped by radio scotland for my "lack of commitment").

Add a couple of part-time jobs into the mix, and all you have there is a sure-fire recipe for not-getting-anywhere fast. Oh, and during my time in Citizen Cain, having a long-term relationship crash and burn spectacularly to boot. (Happened to two of the band members at about the same time, as I recall. One of the unspoken dangers of prog rock...!).

But please, don't think for a moment that I'm moaning or complaining about my record of grand musical underachievement (right now my mental state can be summed-up by combining 2 songs from Pink Floyd's Division Bell - see if you can guess which ones?). I was fully aware of my decisions, and I've had some fantastic times, shared with great people that I'm proud to call my friends, every (mis)step of the way. And it's perfectly plausible that I would never have had any greater "success" even if I'd knuckled-down and gone for every opportunity that came my way. I'd just hate to see anyone else repeating my all-too-simple-and-obvious mistakes.

And who knows what the future may still hold? I mean, it's not like I'm 40 or anything. Yet.

*To be fair to my folks, they came from the era when having a degree was like holding a magical "job-of-your-choosing-for-life" ticket, when employers were prepared to spend money on actually training people to do jobs, and Britain still had a fair chunk of an empire to bolster its delusions of national grandeur. They couldn't possibly have predicted the changes and upheavals of the 1980's, and beyond, so I'm quite happy to take responsibility for my own cock-ups, really. Now the job market's only eager to devour anyone willing to work in a call centre and my degree's worth spit. Who'd a thunk it?

Thursday, 6 September 2007

What Do You Want From Me?

One of the pleasant side-effects of playing original music is that you can generally avoid the barrage of (largely musical-taste free) audience requests that are an inevitable bane of the average function/pub covers band. I'm sure that many of the older and more successful artists do get heartily sick of people asking them to play music from that long-gone golden age when all of the band members:

a) had hair (on their heads, rather than sprouting vigorously from their ears and nostrils),
b) actually talked to each other, rather than communicating solely through their lawyers, and
c) the drink, drugs and arthritis hadn't yet drained their collective creative juices with all the eagerness of John Mills downing his lager at the end of "Ice Cold in Alex".

But I'm also fairly certain that the cumulative royalties and/or mega-stadium concert receipts serve to stave off the on-stage boredom sufficiently for the rest of us not to weep for them too profusely, the poor dears.

(Oh, while we're on 'requests', if anyone from a "pre-rock" generation comes up to you at a gig and tells you to "turn your bass guitar down, it's far too loud, and it's damaging folks' hearing", don't, whatever you do, try to engage them in a conversation about presbycusis, or explain that their hearing loss in the 4-5khz range results in the bass sounding more prominent. Just nod, adopt an expression of seriousness & concern, turn round and pretend exaggeratedly that you're lowering all the volume controls on your amp. Worked for me, anyway).

There again, in a function band you are at least guaranteed some audience members (even if they choose to ignore you all night), you don't have the horrors of "pay-to-play" venues, and you'll even end the night with some money (unless you get lumped with a bloody cheque - almost always when cash was previously agreed upon, too, would you believe?). You are, however, contractually obligated into some degree of musical whoredom, so must tread the worryingly fine line between denying the bride's recently-divorced-and-currently-drunk-cousin's desire to hear half of Westlife's back catalogue, and angering those in control of your payment. Sometimes you get unusual requests that turn out to be an interesting challenge, such as the time we were asked, at short notice, if we could play "half an hour of modern jazz" at the start of the evening. Unusually, for a ceilidh band, we could (I scribbled out some basic charts and we improvised/bluffed it outrageously). These bouts of spontaneous fun are, though, far from the norm.

There is one particular type of request that is especially fraught with danger- the 'first dance' at a wedding. All the video cameras are primed, the happy couple are gazing adoringly into each other's eyes as they stand, alone, in the centre of the room. Everything is still in anticipation - this is their moment. So absolutely a dead certainty that if you make a pig's ear of it, everyone there isn't going to forgive & forget in a hurry, there'll be some rude phone calls to your agent, and you'd better start scouring the newspaper for a proper job.

Now, most folk that we played for in Scotland were nice and sensible, and chose to start their night with a traditional waltz, or provided their own 'special song' on cd/mp3 (which often decides to be amusingly incompatible with the mixer, but that's a whole other realm of issues - we'll leave technologically-induced-disasters alone for now). The finest example I ever saw of the latter was at a gig with the mighty Jon Bews, where the bridal pair performed a wonderfully-choreographed dance of their own devising to the strains of Rammstein's "Ohne Dich". Unique, brilliant, and utterly charming. (Mind you, that's one song I would have had no objections at all to learning.)

The second largest group ask the band to play a familiar song that, in the words of that inaccurate expression, "we all know and love". Van Morrison's gratingly sanctimonious, but absurdly popular "Have I Told You Lately That I Love You", Robbie Williams' "Angels" (possibly one of the greatest missed-opportunity-for-a-guitar-solo pop songs of all time. I'm not asking for a pointless exercise in note-cramming, but it was crying out for something along the lines of Dave Gilmour's emotionally-charged-yet-simple playing in "Mother", or his solo in the middle of "Comfortably Numb", rather than the can't-be-arsed yawn-another-single-note-bend blandness we had to endure...not that I like the song anyway, but still), that sort of thing. I must admit, I did enjoy trying to learn to cover both the bass & piano parts of "Here Comes The Sun" in the van on the way to the gig once. (Now there's 'professionalism' for you...).

What I never understood, however, was when otherwise apparently sane (well, they'd booked us, so we liked them) folk chose a song that was clearly, blatantly, unsuitable for purpose. The number of times couples wanted us to cover U2's "With or Without You" as their opener was quite astonishing. Had they bothered to listen to the lyrics, at any point, ever? "I can't live", insists Cardinal Bono, "with or without you". Not just "without", about-to-get-hitched guys - he's saying he can't do the co-habiting, cosy, loving relationship bit, either. And what about one of the verses -

"My hands are tied
My body bruised, she's got me with
Nothing to win and
Nothing left to lose"

yes, well, some of the more cynical of you might say that sounds about right for marriage, but c'mon, seriously...that's how you want your wedding celebration to kick off? Oh dear. And yet so many, it would seem, did...

The worst song we ever had to prepare made that look like "Tiptoe Through The Tulips". In spite of the (frankly miserable) lyrics, disregarding the well-known video (always featuring in countdowns of "Fifty Greatest Rock Videos Featuring Skinny Whiny-Voiced Homophobic Guys In Leather Trousers Screeching And Playing Piano While The Guitarist's So Off His Tits He Hasn't Realised That When He's Doing His Big Solo Outside The Church, He Left His Amp Back Down The Hill In His Truck". I think you know what I mean.), they asked us to perform "November Rain". Well, what can you do? Dutifully, we transcribed it, then transposed it into a key more suitable for a singer whose trousers would not be as tight as Mr. Rose's.

Fortunately, on the night, cometh the hour...they returned to their senses, and decided it wasn't such a great idea after all. So it was good old waltz time, instead. And we could wheel out our favourite 'bridal waltz' tune - the one and only "Fanny Power".

What - musicians who are old enough to know far better indulging in juvenile private anatomical gags involving tune-names written about 300 years ago by Turlough O'Carolan?

You hum it, and I'll be sat at the back sniggering like a 10-year-old who's just found a very rude word in a dictionary.

Monday, 3 September 2007

A Saucerful of Secrets

I've had a few queries about this and that (no, really, I have. Honestly, I'm not just making this up as an easy lead-in to the rest of the entry), so by way of replying, I thought I'd lay bare a small miscellany of little-known personal facts, together with pitiful attempts to explain away my actions/prejudices/occasionally seriously smelly feet. (The last one's genetic by the way - my maternal grandfather was a martyr to truly rancid foot odour - he tried every soap, scrub, oil, linament, and ointment on the market - even prolonged bathing in vinegar, with no success whatsoever. I'm just glad that in the intervening generation the problem's become somewhat diluted, and only intermittent. If I ever turn down an invitation to dine at a traditional Japanese restaurant, well...know everyone knows the awful truth.)

Right then - first up, there have been a couple of questions about the "fish bass" photo. Sad to say, I can be pathetically anal about the most trivial things, and when my mate Neil came up with the idea of a pic of me playing a six-string 'Bass' (the fish), we chortled heartily at the terrible visual pun and its inevitable sequel, the upright Double-Bass - (ie a man playing TWO fish - stop grumbling. Did I, at any juncture, claim that this was funny?), but I wouldn't let it rest at that. I swiftly googled for exactly the right image, since the entire gag relies on people correctly identifying the fish. Otherwise, it's only, well, a generic fish, and that wouldn't be in any way hilarious, now would it? Can't be having that!

So now I can *exclusively* reveal that the fish in the photo (doctored with a free giveaway version of Ulead PhotoImpact rather than anything fancy), is an Ambloplites rupestris, commonly known as the "Rock Bass". Doesn't that just make the whole thing so much more humorous, eh? Yeah, me neither.

Next, I don't actually drink beer. I can't stand the taste of the stuff, be it lager, ale, stout, whatever. Over the last 25 years I have given beer a try on many occasions, but every time the gag reflex, (aka barely-suppressible urge to vomit all over myself - and anyone else in the immediate vicinity - in an unforgiveably anti-social manner), gets the better of me. This must have been, in the long-term, highly beneficial for my waistline, lowered risk of coronary heart disease, etc, but with the unfortunate side-effect of turning me into a whisky snob. (Whisky is a truly mysterious substance - simply add the letter "e" to its name and it instantaneously turns into distilled toilet rim-block). I, you understand, had no control over this process at any time. It was an unavoidable consequence of my body's aversion to beer. Alas, whisky-snobbery can be a frighteningly expensive business, so I have to practice strict mind-body-hand-wallet control techniques when passing certain specialist whisky emporia. (Having no money helps a great deal, too).

Finally (for this instalment), I have appeared on stage naked - just the once, luckily for global aesthetics averages, and I did have the protection of a Korean-made Gibson ES-175 clone, so there are some mitigating circumstances. A long, long time ago, I can still remember (unfortunately), when my aforementioned chum Neil & I were involved in some hideous "tights, ruffs and swords" Mary Queen of Scots-themed amateur (very) dramatics (not really) at Diverse Attractions during the Edinburgh Festival in A time-slot was going spare, and the two of us took up the challenge of writing, rehearsing (hah!), & promoting a 50-minute sketch show, "Go Blind With Mother", to be performed less than a week later (yes, we were young, and most definitely foolish).

We thought it might be amusing if the show started with someone (i.e. me) on stage, playing some light jazz before the audience came in, only for the lights to go up revealing they were (shock! horror!) naked, and apparently blissfully unaware of the fact. Cue sudden-realisation-of-predicament embarrassment gag (did I mention we were young? and foolish? ok, good, just checking), and exit guitarist stage right. Originally I was meant to be wearing some suitably miniscule briefs behind the guitar - I had no intention of letting any of it hang out, let alone all - but just before I was due to go on, Neil hit upon the brilliant idea of daring me to do it fully nude. Which, (young, foolish), I did.

It was only when I was perched on the stool, mid-stage, that I realised that objects previously thought to be completely solid can somehow shrink without any prior warning. My guitar was barely doing its covering job, and seemed to be getting smaller by the second. Then the lights went on, and things got a whole worse. Our energetic promotional techniques (which included piteous begging, shoving flyers through the windows of cars stuck in the Royal Mile traffic, and following people for ridiculously long distances until they agreed to come and see our show) had worked rather better than we could have foreseen, because the place was absolutely packed, and there were people sitting rather further round to both sides than I was entirely comfortable with...the poor souls. Still, I just about got off stage without permanently scarring too many Italian tourists' psyches.

As for the rest of the show, we did fine for about 25 minutes (after I had retrieved my clothing), then we realised we'd packed all the best bits into that time, and somewhat ran out of steam, just about limping through to the end intact.

The next day we were informed that the rest of the planned week-long run was cancelled because we had been banned by the venue (the only show to get banned in the Fringe that year). Not, surprisingly, because we were crap, or that we'd been outrageously offensive, but due to a complaint that we had "thrown eggs at members of the audience" - which we found puzzling, since that hadn't happened. (Eggs were involved in the performance at one point, but it was such a long time ago their exact purpose escapes me. Chucking them at paying punters was, however, definitely not it. Tends not to go down so well, I find.)

Never mind, we made enough of a profit (now there's a rarity for the Edinburgh Festival) for a small round of drinks for our mates, and I satisfied any/all latent urges I may have ever had for acts of public nudity. So far, anyway...