Band Made, Part 2

(part 1)

A year or so later, we decided to put out a single, which turned into an EP, which was simply a way of maximising bang-for buck (the budget was £500). You were allowed 6-minutes per side of a 45 rpm vinyl at the pressing plant we used, so we hired an 8-track Fostex machine (which used quarter-inch reel-to-reel tape) and re-recorded four of the songs from our first 14 – which had been put out separately as a cassette release called Mr Mystery/The Proper Stranger, mainly because I couldn’t settle on one title.

The EP was called Welcome to Weston-Super-Mare, mainly because there was a picture of a big lit-up sign saying just that on the cover (there was a reference to the town in one of the songs). The cover was printed by a small firm, but the printing plate had been created by my Dad. It featured the aforementioned picture, and on the back the track listing along with a prose poem written by me that began, This summer night of luscious wind and rain…

We tried to get some interest going in the single. The local newspaper came round and took a photo, and then printed a story full of factual errors. We took copies to the local radio station, which were promptly given away as crap competition prizes (winners complained, I heard). Somehow, a copy made its way to BBC Radio 1, and a DJ called Janice Long played the first track, ‘Is It Any Wonder?’. I learned about this afterwards, because obviously I never listened to Radio 1: someone who knew someone jumped out of their bathtub when they heard it. So that was my three minutes of fame, over.

I was always unhappy with the electronic drum machine on our early recordings, but ironically, twenty years later, as I reached the natural end of my third period of songwriting and recording, I’d come around to the idea, and you can hear similar machine sounds on my last few recordings. My main objection, as I said above, was that I really struggled to play at the machine-generated fixed tempo. I always felt it was a case of putting the cart before the horse. Analogue music has a natural, if slight, variation in tempo, which is totally lost with the rigid programming of beats-per-minute. This is not an original complaint, but while I did get better at playing in time over the years, I wish I’d played less: one chord per bar, or on the off beat only, something like that. As to playing live with a drummer, that was when I really discovered my limitations.

I hated performing, found it horribly nervewracking, and I was never confident playing with the others – had a bad case of imposter syndrome. I couldn’t even hear the drums through my nerves when we were playing live, and I couldn’t improvise when Pete and Curly decided to go off on one. Still, there were some good nights, though it was never destined to come to anything. We were 3/4 of a good band, and I always saw myself as the weakest link, which is a shame, because I don’t think I was that bad, and if I could have shaken off those feelings, we might have gone somewhere. Reading about the early days of the Beatles (without for one second comparing myself to them), it’s clear that Lennon, for example, was often vamping in the early days, and it was only really the 7 million hours on stage in Hamburg that honed their abilities. Even then, nerves might get the better of them, leading to fluffed solos and harmonies. 

Then again, we didn’t have a manager, or someone to carry the burden of booking gigs and doing the marketing part. That might have helped, but who would want to manage us?

Our best gigs were probably in the Vaults bar in Stony Stratford, where we had two or three good nights, having worked up a couple of cover versions as well as my own songs. By this time, I was living in Milton Keynes with my then-girlfriend, a relationship that lasted about five years. But with both her and Jim gone from my life (long story), I made the decision to apply to University, to sell the house (lost money on it, bottom of the market) and move on. For the last few months, alone in the house we’d shared, I ended up with most of Pete’s recording equipment in my back bedroom. By then, there was an 8-track Fostex reel-to-reel recorder, a (16 channel?) mixing desk, and a variety of other things. Between us, Pete and I recorded a few more songs, but we never played them live. The band was quietly retired, and I (briefly) went solo, performing songs as well as short stories when I was asked to do readings.

I did most of the recordings on my own: had grown competent enough with the equipment that I could operate it without help. I didn’t understand most of what I was doing, and didn’t have an inkling for how the mixing desk really worked, but everything was connected up and I knew which buttons to push.

But when the house was sold, the equipment all had to go elsewhere, and when I started at University, I stopped doing music altogether. The catalyst was an open mic night that Roy and I went down to. Roy was a proper musician who had a proper band, and he wanted nothing to do with this open mic crowd, but I thought I’d show my face. I did a song, but decided then and there that I hated the scene and the people, and all the boys who thought they were Jesus with an acoustic guitar.

It goes back to my lack of affect as a singer. I didn’t fit in with all those intense people who took their music so seriously.

And I gave it up for years, till (for professional reasons) I had to learn all about computer recording technology and MIDI, and I rediscovered my love of recording. It started as a way of me getting to grips with the software and its requirements, so I could give the sales team enough knowledge to sell the stuff over the phone. And I eventually became pretty competent in using Pro Tools, and converted my garage to a home studio. It was a neat set up: a few really nice microphones, a small mixing desk, a computer interface, some expensive monitor speakers. And I must have written/recorded 100 or so songs – some cover versions – and they weren’t all bad.

My earliest attempts are incompetent: the drums (now MIDI programmed, triggering sounds from sample collections and virtual instruments) were awful to begin with, and the guitars were fairly crappy, and my arrangements lacked imagination. But over a few intense years I grew more confident and occasionally did something I thought was good. Once I relied less on strumming guitars and thought more about how everything worked together, I did some nice things. Nothing is perfect, and nothing really sounds professional quality, but as I said above, I was overcoming the handicap of having almost zero musical talent.

Occasionally, Pete would drop in to play some bass, just like the old days, but mostly I’d do that kind of stuff myself. A couple of people from work contributed sometimes, but the bits that make me smile the most are the tracks where I’ve overcome my own limitations and played some half-decent guitar, or through serendipity have managed a nice combination of sounds. Painstakingly picking out MIDI notes on a keyboard and creating what sounded like piano: that sort of thing. My favoured mix turns out to be a fairly quiet drum track with a brushed snare, some piano, some tremolo electric guitar, bass — and a slightly emotionless vocal.

Around 2006, I changed careers, and eventually ran out of ideas and time to do the music justice. Software stopped working, hardware got outdated. My freebies stopped being authorised because I was no longer working for a dealer, and my last few recordings really relied on a much limited set of options, which wasn’t a bad thing. But by then the song ideas had stopped coming. I’d exhausted my backlog of memory and emotion: a lot of those songs had been written about all of those days long gone. The system could have gone on working for longer if I’d not updated the software, but it only takes one moment of madness, and you can screw the whole thing. 

There remain two more things to mention. The last time (I think) I saw Jim, I was commuting home to Buckingham from Nottingham, and I passed a petrol station on the A5. Standing by one of the pumps was a biker, in leathers, helmet off, blonde hair. There was a familiarity to his posture, a kind of curvature of the spine and the shoulders that made me certain it was Jim. It was a mere moment, I was passing by at 40, 50 miles per hour.

And it was before that, in the first flurry of social networking, that someone I’d been at school with passed Jim’s work email address to me. It turned out that – more than a decade after he’d returned from a post-divorce trip to Australia full of beans and full of plans to return, to emigrate, as soon as he possibly could – that Jim was still working in the same job he’d had since he left school. In the same period of time, I’d given up my first job, done three university degrees, a host of different temporary jobs, and started a whole new career in a different part of the country.

I think he was just back from the pub, or he’d surely never have entertained an exchange of emails. I was honestly surprised he was still working at the same place, sitting in the same office, getting on for 20 years after he’d started. But he hadn’t changed.

‘I’ve got to get a plan,’ he said, as if the trip back to Australia was still on his mind. I was actually embarrassed for him. It was no skin off my nose if he was still working in the same old job – all jobs are a shitty imposition on our free time, so who fucking cares? But to read him still talking about escaping in the same old way, using the same old words, was disconcerting. Anyway, I’m sure as soon as he sobered up he regretted the conversation, brief as it was.

I think his employer closed down in the end, and I believe (only because it was mentioned in the blurb of a television programme I never watched) he moved on to train as a firefighter at an airport: ever the hero in his own mind, I guess.

My fingers are soft now. I have a really nice Taylor acoustic guitar that my daughters play, but I haven’t picked it up for years. It’s sad, but my current job consumes all my creative energy: sometimes I feel as if I’ve been performing for five hours in a day (because I have). There’s no energy left for making music. Maybe when I retire.

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Some of me Music

The Proper Stranger. My future brother-in-law got a 4-track cassette recorder, so we started meeting up on Wednesday evenings and recording songs that I’d written. The more we recorded, the more I wrote. It was me and my then best-friend at first, but after a while he gave up on it, probably feeling he was contributing nothing. He was the first one to even write a song, which started me off. Once you realise you can do it yourself: oh. But then he didn’t write any more at all, and I was coming up with a new one (or more) every week. It turned out that, on tape, we sounded very similar anyway.

There’s a drum machine, Curly (Mark Ridout) on backing vocals and guitar, and Pete Austin on on bass. I think I’m just singing on this one. We didn’t have access to Curly very often. We put his amp in the bath for the rhythm part.

Is It Any Wonder? My first song, which was recorded for the 1984 cassette release Mr Mystery/The Proper Stranger, and then for our 1985 EP, Welcome to Weston-Super-Mare. This was recorded onto an 8-track, then pressed onto 500 vinyl 45 rpms. We had to speed up the tempo so we could fit all the songs we wanted on. Thinking back, my major influence at the time was probably Jonathan Richman. The idea was a kind of cool detached, pastiche/homage to old rock ’n’ roll, singing with a smile on my face. That cool detachment is the central characteristic. No real emotion, except that which might be evoked by the lyrics, if you cared. I hated the drum machine sound, and when we played live we had a real drummer (Olivier, who was half French), but we didn’t have the facilities to record a real drum kit. That’s Curly on lead guitar and Pete on bass again.

Sway. About five years after we started the recording project, I ended up with a lot of Pete’s equipment in my back bedroom. By this time it was an 8-track reel-to-reel and a mixing desk. I wrote this one about a girl I was seeing, Sarah, and recorded it just on acoustic guitar in that back room. A few years later, when I was experimenting with computer recording for work purposes (which is how I ended up getting back into it), I got hold of an Adrenalinn, a kind of drum machine, with guitar delay effects. You plugged your guitar in, and it created textures and rhythms based on the drum pattern. So I played “Sway” through it, and then my work friend Simon played some whale sounds on his guitar.

Latest News. I’d started teaching Media Studies, and I wrote this song, which wasn’t based on anything real, just all the different media I was thinking about. It takes you through from news and the BBC and the internet through radio and magazine articles, and then a film. And I recorded it with a selection of the instruments I’d begun to accumulate, and Roy played some guitar on it. His is the laid back rhythm in the left channel. At the time I had a Variax, which had the banjo sound on it, and I had an Ovation mandolin which was pretty cool.

You Don’t Belong. When I was in my early 20s, songs were like diary entries. I would take real emotional stuff that was happening and turn it into simple little songs that didn’t sound like anything much (emotional detachment being my watchword). When I went back to writing songs in my 30s and 40s, I had to dig down deep into memories. This was written about my ex-best friend, and his habit of creating legends about his life, the kind of bullshit I eventually tired of. I saw him from my car once, filling up his motorbike at a petrol station on the A5. It was about 15 years after he’d bored my tits off with his fantasies about emigrating to Australia. And there he was in Northampton, with his characteristic sloped shoulders and his motorbike. Went home and wrote this. Some of the recordings are so vivid I can remember recording every instrument.

The Conversation. In the 80s, I wrote a short story, and then I turned it into a kind of epic poem, which I turned into a song. I used to perform it at poetry readings. It was long and full of detail, quite funny. And then about 15 years later, the original long forgotten, I wrote a 3-minute version of it, what I could remember of it. I still like the guitar on this, and the flow of the lyrics. And every time he repeats. “the one I’d always loved” the meaning changes, until you know he’s singing about how he always picks on unavailable women. Story of my life.

And Then You Fall. This and “You Don’t Belong” were my first experiments with piano sounds. I’d got some kind of amazing plug-in software piano that sounded great. So I started programming one chord at a time into the software and then building on them. I’m also pleased with this because what sounds like some kind of mandolin solo is actually a guitar solo recorded at half-speed and then played back at normal speed. Pete plays bass on this. And then there’s an actual mandolin on there somewhere. I’d edit this to make it shorter if I did it again.

Outside My Window. In my teens, I was kind of in love with my then best-friend’s girlfriend, Linda. I was eaten up with jealousy, which I would never admit to myself of course. I was horrible to her and ended up deliberately cutting her out of my life, hoping all the time that she would say something and we could have it out. But before I did that, we were very close. When I left home and lived in Kent for a while, she wrote to me at least once a week. And she came down to stay one weekend, and we spent a couple of precious days together without him around. I wrote this song about that weekend, and the rest of it. I piled too many instruments into the mix, but it kind of fits because of all the emotions I piled into that relationship. I would get snippets of news about her from him, when I could casually ask without making it seem obvious that I really wanted to know. But he lost touch with her himself in the end, so I lost that lifeline. I regret this almost as much as not being able to whistle with my fingers.

Saturday Night. This has a lazy tempo, but I like it, especially the line, “All those eight o’clock girls, trying to straighten their curls…” Another song aimed at my introverted younger self, for whom Saturday nights in the Saracen’s Head in Dunstable were a form of torture. Fake it for fuck’s sake.

Walking Shoes. I was just playing with song arrangements on this, copying that of a record I liked. This is another “digging deep” one, written about a girl I liked when we worked together in Bejam in Dunstable. She really did used to frighten old men, Juliet. This is a phase when I was capable of some decent guitar because I’d been playing so much.

Everything. You can tell all the ones recorded about the same time: had my Orange guitar amp, and was just recording the sound straight from it. Play with some chords, make up some words. Whoever this was about? Lost in the mists.

Without You. I think I aimed this at my younger self, and the stupid games I used to play when trying to get women interested (qv “Outside My Window”, above). One of the last times I recorded with the mandolin, which I was too rubbish to play properly.

Yours Faithfully. One of the last things I ever did was February Album Writing Month (FAWM), in 2009, maybe? You write 14 songs in 28 days. Easy! Except I never did much justice to the recordings, focusing too much on working quickly. Also, most of my good software wasn’t working anymore, so I had a much more limited set of sounds. But this one I liked, because of the bits about, “There is no ex in loneliness, etc.” It’s about being dumped by text, which people were doing by then, it says here. I used pitch-changing software to add the backing vocal.

Tell Me a Movie. This is another one kind of based on a short story I wrote. This was a FAWM song. Again, I didn’t do the recording justice, and the vocal is not the best. I’m embarrassed by it really, but I still like the idea behind the song. Always thought there were too many verses but couldn’t bear to cut one.

Little Red Riding Hood. As best I can remember, this was the last one I wrote and recorded. Just messing around with different sounds by this stage. One of a series written about my younger, hopeless self. Sold the amp after this, and the electric guitar, which about two years later the kids were really annoyed about.