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.


Mark said...

Motorway Services Info, haven't heard of that one. It's not alone, I've always used Motorway Services Online.

Andy Gilmour said...

There's more than one site cataloguing UK service stations??

wow. I'd never have thought there'd be enough people interested in 'em to keep them both going...

I wonder if there's some kind of deep & bitter rivalry going on - devotees of one site secretly reviling the other lot..or maybe they were "splitters"?


p.s. Thanks for commenting, btw!