**********THIS IS THE FIRST FEW THOUSAND WORDS OF MY PROPOSED BOOK ON MY LIFE AND TIMES AS A MUSO - IT'S LONG BUT READ ON IF YOU GET THE CHANCE AND LET ME KNOW WHETHER IT'S WORTH ME CONTINUING THE STORY UNTIL THE (NOT SO) BITTER END. THANKS **********
3.30pm on a Sunday afternoon isn’t universally accepted as the ideal time to run onstage in front of thousands of expectant fans dressed as a non-threatening moggy, launch enough pyrotechnics to make Guy Fawkes a little nervous and scream “I Wanna Rock And Roll All Nite (sic) And Party Every Day!!” but that’s what I did in fulfilling an ambition that took me over 2 decades to achieve – namely to play my drums live onstage in front of thousands at the NEC in Birmingham.
Ok, so it wasn’t the Arena where I strutted my stuff, strictly speaking. But I couldn’t give a toss about specifics. It looks far better on my hard rocking CV than a residency at the Lyndon Pub just up the road from my Grandad’s – or indeed than 2 quotes aimed in my direction very early in my fledgling career as a trainee rock star:-
“Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. What is this apparition I see before me dressed in a pair of ludicrous green spandex efforts and precious little else? Who is this man with a haircut that no proud barber would be sane enough to put his name to? Who is this man with the gall to tell us what a bunch of wankers we are? Somebody give this man a mirror! This is the vocalist from Shotgun Wedding, a man with no name on my notepad and no cells in his brain…”
“We created a monster with Guns N’ Roses and now were paying for it with demos like this…This isn’t rock and roll-it’s dead boring...”
Imagine reading that 1st quote as a band member excitedly flicking through the pages of Kerrang! Magazine knowing that your recent gig at Birmingham University was being reviewed by some bloke called Howard Johnson and this was to be the band’s first EVER appearance in Britain’s then best-selling rock music periodical?
Imagine reading that 2nd quote having ripped open a reply to a demo tape your band has sent to a major record label, scarcely believing that they’d even opened your jiffy bag package, let alone composed a non-standard reply?
They’re hardly put-downs in the league of Victor Lewis-Smith and Charlie Brooker, but pretty succinct nonetheless. The odd thing is that the band who received these barbed comments continued to struggle on, fire singers, hire singers, fire them for having smelly feet, play for 2 men a dog and a can of beans in Nottingham, Morecambe and Oxford amongst other players and make at least 3 more sub-standard demo tapes over the course of the ensuing 4 years. This was Shotgun Wedding. Never heard of us? Quite right too.
This kind of attack from media types is typical of what was thrown at metal bands like us in the late 80’s / early 90’s – we were a 5-piece shaggy-haired beat combo with a hide like a rhinocerous and thus seemingly impervious to the bleeding obvious…that we were pretty crap in the grand scheme of things. Apportioning blame is all too easy when bands believe that platinum sales and Penthouse Pets are easily within their grasp, only for reality to sink in years down the line.
Alcohol usually tops the list of reasons for abject failure in the seedy world of rock and roll. Most pubs must have a bloke that sits in the corner with thinning long hair and a tankard of real ale constantly to hand, desperate to convince us all that he was ‘that close’ to emulating Jimmy Page’s notoriety as a searing-hot lead guitarist, only for his snakebite-fuelled singer to promptly throw up on his snakeskin pointy boots at a showcase in front of Frilly Pink’s top A&R executive and thus scupper everything before they’d even got a session on the Friday Rock Show.
Alcohol’s a smokescreen though – how pissed has Slash gotten over the years, and yet he’s as rich as Simon Cowell’s cat. It’s truly down to luck – and shitloads of it – that gets you onto rung number 1 of the rock and roll fantasy ladder and then the hard work sets in to even keep you there, never mind climb it. Personally, I was well prepared for the hard work…just a massive failure in the luck stakes.
I used to listen avidly to that aforementioned Friday Rock Show on Radio 1 every week in my late teens, and used to gnash my teeth at the sheer banality of the acts brought in by Tommy Vance & co to record 4-song sessions for them. Usually German or Swedish and usually utter crap, these were the bands that knew little better than to rhyme ‘night’ with ‘tight’ and ‘paid’ with ‘laid’ and employed all the gumbo-metal clichés that made the genre so easy to rip the piss out of.
And yet, Shotgun Wedding wrote songs with melody, great lyrics and no small amount of gusto in my opinion, only for it to make as much of an impression as if an ant had nipped the back of your finger. Same goes for Sons Of God, and that band was even more talented if anything – you can see where this is going already to be fair. A bitter 250-page rant at the expense of all the wankers who fucked up my rock and roll dream, while I stand absolved of any blame. “Not me guv, I did nothing wrong, honest – it’s a scandal I tell ya…” So let’s relax for a second.
Now, as I consider my moment of glory with my former bandmates in Dressed To Kill at the NEC, I can at least be content that I’ve achieved loads of great things as a gigging semi-pro musician and not had to deal with the cabin fever that accompanies most rock stars on the hotel/gig/hotel/gig/flight/gig/tourbus/hotel/gig/hotel/studio/gig/suicide/martyrdom treadmill. I was forced to get a real job and make my passion my hobby rather than my reason for living – and probably got more enjoyment out of it as a result.
As soon as I heard the first side of KISS ‘Alive!’ at the age of 10 years of age, all thoughts of becoming a vet or French translator went right out of the window. I was always going to play music, thanks to the extraordinary talent my Dad had on the piano, both as a Gershwin-esque ivory tinkler but also (and possibly more impressively) he was a master of the Les Dawson style of deliberately tuneless noise, the sort of skill you can’t master unless you’re brilliant. Dad was.
My 2 elder brothers had shown interest in the guitar – Rob first, but that passion was quickly eschewed in favour of the hedonistic adolescent world of discos, Tavares and handlebar moustaches. Phil however was still worshipping at the temple of Richie Blackmore and he didn’t take long to master the Stratocaster, forming his first band within a year. And that’s where the drums came in for me, as I used to go and watch his nascent beat combo – thrillingly named Aurora – rehearse at the nearby Hobs Moat Church Hall, and noted how everyone in the band looked bastard miserable to be onstage playing, except for the drummer Ian Blick, who grinned Cheshire Cat-like throughout and suckered me in completely.
Mum was summarily dispatched to the local music shop some days later, returning with a pair of sticks so warped they resembled an Arab’s dagger along with a rubber practice pad on which to learn the basic rudiments of drumming. I was hooked – within days I had rigged up an impromptu kit around my bed. Empty ice cream tubs of varying size were arranged as tom-toms around the practice pad used in place of a snare drum. The linoleum floor of my bedroom made a suitable thud with my stocking feet to replicate a bass drum, and the effect was rounded off with crinkly plastic bags from Virgin Records attached to unwound coathangers that doubled as cymbals and hi-hats. Ingenious, I felt, and armed with my brothers portable cassette player I set about learning from rock’s great drumming behemoths in Kiss, Genesis, Thin Lizzy, Deep Purple and Rainbow – those being the only albums we seemed to own between the 3 of us brothers.
And to be fair, studying at the temples of Phil Collins, Brian Downey, Ian Paice, Cozy Powell and, yes, even Kiss’ Peter Criss weren’t too shabby places to start thwacking along with. Phil regularly tortured me with a ‘challenge’ to master a whole song of his choosing. The rewards for succeeding are faint in my mind, but may have been a quarter of strawberry bon-bons from Lavells newsagent around the corner – whatever it was it was enough incentive to practice hard, resulting in some satisfying moments where the entire mid-section of Genesis’ “Robbery Assault and Battery” was pulled of with great aplomb, much to my brother’s chagrin as he handed over the requisite 50 pence.
Before long, of course, my ambitions as a 10-year old drummer lay beyond the linoleum and the crinkly plastic bags – soon my limited ability at artwork was trying to create enormous stage sets for my imaginary world-dominating band that I’d decided to christen WildCat – I’d even written songs with full lyrics and riffs (riffs that were in my head as I’d yet to decipher guitar playing) and the titles are still fresh in my mind now – Collision Course, Got No Friends and the anthemic Comet (“I’m a Comet and I’m glad to be me too/I’m a Comet and I’m coming after you”)
The next logical step was to recruit my band of brothers in arms, my hard rockin’ amigos, partners in crime. Amazingly, I found a kindred spirit within weeks of starting senior school. Andy Simmons was at that time possibly the only other 11 year old in the entire borough who had even heard of Kiss, let alone be as nutty about them as I was. Indeed our entire year contained about 4 rockers in all, including the only afro-caribbean kid in the entire school, who worshipped Brit metal gods Iron Maiden beyond reason and God, and ended up reading children’s news on the BBC. So there you go.
Andy was a fledgling bass player and also a million times better at art than I was. As we swapped stories about our greasepainted heroes over lunch, my WildCat ideas were swiftly discarded in favour of an even more ambitious concept – Minotaur. Yes, we were young, hungry and big on Greek mythology. Andy’s first stage set drawing for Minotaur had to be seen to be believed. It was genius – a huge 50ft high re-creation of the bull-headed, human-torsoed beast adorned centre stage with its 2 fists pressed together under the pectoral muscles. Perched atop the fists? A massive double bass drum kit, which could levitate up and down on the hydraulic fists…oh, and the beast’s eyes lit up blood red and flames came spluttering out of its nostrils.
Don’t you just wish our dream had become reality? I mean, the late great Ronnie Dio had his unbelievably naff Denzil Dragon on the Sacred Heart tour in 1985 didn’t he? It was a dragon that Ronnie proceeded to ‘fight’ with a plastic sword, which he slammed repeatedly against its rubbery neck, ensuring much guffawing in the front stalls. Well, this was the logical extension of that – and Andy had thought of it fully 5 years before Dio came up with Denzil. Visionaries I’m sure you’ll agree.
But the course of true rock legends never runs smooth and we came up against a bit of a sticky one - we couldn’t find any guitarists or a singer. For 2 years. Still at least it meant we could refine the stage designs still further and put together a set list of future classics like Snowqueen (12 year olds writing about cocaine like we knew it all – twats) The Nights Are Colder Now, and my epic ballad You Only Love Me When I’m Dreaming (naturally I rhymed ‘dreaming’ with ‘screaming’ in the chorus - a German band in session on the Friday Rock Show would’ve killed for that rhyming couplet).
We did in truth find a couple of guitarists at our school, Neil & Tim, but on the occasions we rehearsed at my house – I had by this time been given a cheap 2nd hand drum kit for Christmas, and I had lovingly tended it like a 4-year-old girl cradles Baby Annabel – we discovered that their love of The Beatles wasn’t going to mix with 2 Kiss freaks and we had to look beyond the school walls.
Those rehearsals in my bedroom with the 4 of us – Andy playing his bass through a valve amp and Tim & Neil sharing a tiny guitar practice amp – were a great education in many ways. For one it taught us all how rehearsal studios the length and breadth of Britain would smell to us in years to come – that tantalising combination of testosterone, Insignia deodorant and warm Coca-Cola…although these days it’s more Lynx Java and Lucozade Sport, but you get my drift. But it did also teach great discipline to me about the drummer’s role. No guitarist will ever admit it, but they rely heavily on the drummer for guidance and timings and that’s the first discipline I really had to master rather than the quasi-perfect execution of a double flam-ratamacue on the snare.
Early on when I practiced alone, I used to put on my personal stereo, attach the headphones securely to my bonce with a couple of winds of sellotape and play along with Kiss’ “Lick It Up” album at full distorted volume – any quieter and I wouldn’t have heard a thing above my snare drum so my hearing was taking more of a battering in several weeks than Pete Townsend’s did in the space of two decades.
But as we were around 25 years away from the invention of in-ear monitor systems, I had to soldier on with my primitive set up. More importantly, Andy & I couldn’t soldier on much longer without a guitar player and so we advertised in the best possible place – in the window of the local organ & violin shop in Solihull town centre. Rock and indeed roll. We argued for at least 30 seconds as to the wording of said postcard ad which ended up saying something along the lines of ‘Guitarist age 16-19 required for original rock band in Solihull are. Influences: Lizzy, Kiss, Whitesnake Tel: Ian etc etc.’ Why we put Whitesnake down when neither of us were big fans is still beyond me.
The applicants didn’t exactly form an orderly queue as much as barely took on human form at all. The first call from a guy called Max quickly hung up on discovering that he’d be a decade older than his prospective bandmates – well, he knew the risks as a 25 year old having seen the age range we’d put on the ad. Idiot.
However the only other reply we got had more promise – Keith was a 17-year-old guitarist from down the road in Yardley, already had experience playing live in local pubs and - more importantly – drove a car. He was swiftly summoned to my place for an audition the next week, but he arrived the following Wednesday evening to be told that as Ask The Family with Robert Robinson was just starting on BBC1 followed by a particularly enthralling edition of Panorama, my folks wouldn’t let me play drums in the house, so the audition would have to be a tad quieter than planned.
The next bit shows how twattish and up our arses Andy & I were at the time musically-speaking, and Keith’s response spoke volumes about his ‘real world’ hutzpah. We had decided that Keith’s ability would be suitably tested by playing along to a piece of sheet music Andy had brought with him, namely Zep’s ‘Stairway To Heaven’. To his eternal credit, Keith didn’t put his guitar back in its case, calls us both snobbish nerks and retreat to his Ford Fiesta, but instead proceeded to play the gentle acoustic intro note perfectly whilst at the same time guiding his eyes over the musical notation in the same way that Rowlph used to do playing the piano on The Muppet Show.
We were floored and offered him the keys to our Minotaur kingdom pretty much on the spot – amazingly, Keith agreed to a proper rehearsal at full volume the next weekend. It was years later that I discovered Keith knew ‘Stairway…’ back to front anyway and just made it look like he was a genius Grade 8 sight-reader to impress us. He must’ve just taken pity on us and figured we were worth a shot despite our anally retentive approach to the audition process. And anyway, he was already playing live regularly, something we wouldn’t be able to do for months presumably. What was he not getting out of that gig that led him to us?
I found out swiftly upon my first visit to The Grange pub in Sheldon a couple of days later, where Keith was 2nd guitar in a band called ‘Special Guests’ who had a residency at the place every Thursday night. The live room - called the ‘Memphis Lounge’ for no apparent reason as the room appeared uncontaminated by any artefacts from Tennessee – was sparsely populated with, I guess, around 20 paying punters as Keith and his 4 bandmates plowed on through their set of 60’s & 70’s cover versions. There was Clive on lead vocals, out of time tambourine and ludicrous red boiler suit with a pointless fob of keys hanging off its belt; another Clive on drums who I can only describe from memory as a dead ringer for Hank Scorpio off The Simpsons; Vince on bass and unremarkable stage prescence and his younger brother Steve on lead guitar and infinitely more stage prescence, if a tad restricted by the compact and bijou surroundings of the Memphis Lounge.
Sporting a valuable-looking (it was) Gibson Les Paul Gold Top and a flash-looking (it wasn’t) Elvis-type microphone for his backing vocals, Steve was every inch the guitar god…in a body of a man who weighed 6 stone wringing wet and played as though his heels were nailed to the stage and he was straining to escape the shackles without success. But my goodness he could play – especially in a Claptonesque way, it had to be said. The set was weighed heavy that way – Politician by Cream, Layla by Derek & the Dominoes, Wonderful Tonight, Crossroads…all knocked out with sublime precision by Steve, save for the odd mistake in the solos.
I pointed this out to Keith at the band’s half-time piss break and he was quick to startle me. “No, he means to play those mistakes, mate”
“What the fuck are you on about – MEANS to??”
“ Oh yeah – what you heard there was the exact solo Clapton played on Crossroads at the Rainbow Theatre London on May 14 1971 – he’s got a bootleg and learned it note for cock-up…”
“It’s the God’s honest truth, mate I’m telling you”
Now I’d discovered by this point that I had perfect pitch, which enabled me to work out exactly what note was being played by an instrument just by hearing it, which not only enabled me to work out songs on piano or guitar very quickly, but also pissed off just about every guitar player I’ve ever worked with (typical remark “How do you know that one? You’re just the fucking drummer”)
This however, seemed to be taking perfect pitch a little too far, but I had no time to consider this curious point further as Keith led the band back onstage to perform what was his party piece for the night – Sultans Of Swing by Dire Straits. It was nothing short of brilliant. Keith showed such natural ability to sing and play what I later learned was his favourite song, and he assured me afterwards that the cock-ups made in the end solo were indeed his and not Mark Knopfler’s at the Toad & Raspberry in Haseley Knob in October 1977.
If ever I needed convincing that Keith was perfect for Andy & I, that first visit to see him live rubber-stamped it, and the anticipation for our first proper rehearsal as a band increased tenfold for me.
Andy lived in Hampton-In-Arden, a blink-and-you’d-miss-it village on the outskirts of Solihull, and it possessed a village hall that was barely used at weekends and was at least half a mile away from any village residents. Perfect for incendiary levels of rock, then, without the need for police intervention. Keith collected me in his Fiesta that Saturday morning and we somehow got my drums and his guitar stuff inside, although I noticed he hasn’t brought the amplifier he’d used the other night at The Grange, which had seemingly been replaced by his stereo separates and a pair of Wharfedale hi-fi speakers. He must’ve noted my concern – “Ah stop flapping – you wait until you hear it son, it’ll blow your mind! I only borrow Steve’s spare amp for the gigs as it looks better onstage”
My mind barely settled by his explanation, we drove over to Hampton in Arden Youth Club, where Andy was waiting inside with kettle boiled and attempting to prize open the kitchen cabinet that contained boxes of Monster Munch and Fizz Bombs, which were meant for sale on youth club nights. Keith quickly succeeded where Andy had failed and 2 packets of Roast Beef flavour later we were setting up our gear – me with my 5-piece drum kit, Andy with his valve bass amp and Westone Thunder 1A bass guitar in natural finish…and Keith with his approximation of one small corner of Dixons.
Once again, Keith was swift to allay our fears about his equipment, so to speak. He’d devised a cunning strategy to make the most wonderfully unholy sound by pressing record & pause on his tape player, whacking up the record level on said player, plugging his Hondo Les Paul copy into the headphone socket and…hey presto! Sounded top drawer to me, so whilst he and Andy tuned up I elected to go to the toilet before we got started in earnest.
Shaking my hands dry as I returned not 45 seconds later, I was greeted by the other 2 with “We’ve just written a song, Ian – want to try it?”
“You’ve written a song together whilst I’ve had a quick piss?”
“Ar. Not bad as it goes. Andy’s idea” replied Keith.
Eyeing both of them with suspicion as I took my place behind the kit, the lads proceeded to go through what they’d come up with in the space of a minute. Keith was right – it wasn’t bad. Andy had a title of ‘Out Of Control’ and had the idea for the riffs whilst he waited for us to arrive, which explained away the devastating speed of composition that would’ve baffled even Bob Dylan and totally mystified Def Leppard. Within a quarter of an hour, we had it nailed. Well, when I say ‘nailed’ I mean that we started and stopped at the same time and the noise inbetween was at least consistent.
Buoyed by such immediate chemistry, we continued to play ‘Out Of Control’ 38 times more, by which time some of the chord changes were actually discernable and I was playing roughly at the same speed at the end of the song as I was at the get-go. It felt heavy, it felt earnest and most of all, it felt like loads of fun. We did make a start on another of Andy’s early opuses, namely ‘She’s a Bitch’ but we had to suspend operations when Keith, in his keenness to show us his impression of a Messrschmit bomber taking off from Schipol Airport, broke his bottom ‘E’ string and realised he hadn’t brought a spare – Keith Richards wouldn’t have batted an eyelid, but we just packed away like good little boys and went home instead.
These rehearsals started to take place pretty much every Saturday morning (unless Blues were at home) and our confidence increased at a geometric rate the more we played stuff together. Looking back, what made it so enjoyable for all of us was that we were all roughly at the same level of ability when we first started playing – no-one was either way ahead technically or lagging behind and that made everyone comfortable to challenge one another with new ideas as we wrote more songs.
But there was one huge problem. Nobody was singing. Mainly as we didn’t have a microphone, mic stand or a PA system to plug it into. But also as there was no frontman. Keith & Andy were up front so to speak, but neither were interested in warbling. That’s not strictly true as it goes – Andy had already launched a solo career outside of Minotaur, assuming the pseudonym of Damien Death and crudely recording acoustic tunes with titles like “Maggots In My Deathmask” into his portable tape player. He sang lead on these tunes, but his voice was more Sisters Of Mercy than Motley Crue and not what was required for searing tight-trouser rock and roll lead vocals. And he knew it and he was deliriously happy about it. Keith, on the other hand could sing quite well, as I’d found out at those ‘Grange’ gigs…from time to time at least. You see the problem Keith had was somewhat basic for a budding singer – he ignored the microphone all to often, and not just because he was working up to a chord change. He just hadn’t quite mastered the concept of keeping his lips in the rough environ of his Shure SM57 for long enough to be actually heard. Bless him – he got better.
And so, one Saturday when we finally had a mic and a stand and a third hi-fi speaker to be heard singing through, we were ready to have a go at, let’s say ‘Out Of Control’ with full-on vocals.
Andy & Keith looked straight at me. “You do it, Ian.”
“But I’m the drummer”
“Phil Collins sings, doesn’t he?”
“Not whilst he’s sodding playing he doesn’t.”
“Alright then, how about that bloke out of Paper Lace? He was on Top Of The Pops a few years back singing and drumming on ‘Billy Don’t Be A Hero’”
“Paper bloody Lace?? Is that the best you can come up with?”
But, being the weak-willed and feeble individual I was (plus the fact that Keith was driving as usual and threatened to head home without me) I soon caved in and had a go at it. Horrible. Truly awful. I suddenly lost my limited ability to play drums – this was like being asked to pat your head, rub your stomach and recite Pi to 35 decimal places in 10 seconds.
“Never mind” said Keith sympathetically “You’ll have it sorted for next week”
“Yeah” agreed Andy “Can’t be that hard to sort out can it?”
Charming. And so during the next week practicing at home, I had to not only play along to my KISS album of choice, but sing along with it too. But whilst it was like being asked to ride a unicycle after being happy on two wheels for ages, it was a valuable time for me in the long run, because I can tell you I got more session and gigging work in my later years based on the fact that bands knew I could sing and drum confidently. Although I cannot recollect ever having played “Billy Don’t Be A Hero” by Paper Lace at any stage from that day to this. Nor any Dave Clark Five. Or early Carpenters. So perhaps I’ve missed out.
Once I had the technique kind of sorted, Minotaur’s song folder started to fill to overflowing at rehearsals. Keith brought in 2 great tunes, a really groovy rocker called “The Feeling” and the lovelorn “What Is Happening To Us?” that he was happy to sing himself; Andy was equally prolific churning out the anthemic “Anthem” (!) and the song destined to open our set “Kill Your Sorrow” with the immortal opening salvo of “You’re gonna bleed, gonna make you plead ‘til your ears burn.” One for the grannies there.
Such was our confidence in ourselves, our material and our limited stagecraft that we wanted to play for an audience within a few months. Lucky for us that the biggest band in Hampton-In-Arden (an hotly-contested accolade I’m sure you’ll agree) called Celestial Skies were playing at the youth club on an upcoming Friday night. Andy knew the guitarist/singer Eddy and they agreed to let us open the show with a 30-minute set. Better still, we were going to be able to use their PA and backline, so we stood a chance of sounding vaguely professional using much better equipment…alright, theirs was shit too, but less shit than what we owned.
By this time I’d started 6th form college in Solihull – after 5 cosseted years in an all boys school, I’d pleaded with Mum & Dad to let me go somewhere that didn’t want to brainwash me into becoming a Tory, and seeing as it would no longer cost them silly money, they hastily agreed. This meant sudden social interaction with girls, for which I was monumentally under-prepared, having only been kissed once by Michelle Hobday in the junior school playground during a game of British Bulldog at age 8.
But if anything was going to make me hot with the chicks it would surely be the badge of honour that came with being a musician – ok a drummer – and I eagerly anticipated an orderly queue of crumpet after our triumphant first performance. Dressing like man at Burton on the evening was, therefore, a risk that I shouldn’t have undertaken. Why I thought that a jumper with jeans (with I hasten to add a crease ironed down the middle of each leg by Mum) was rock and roll when my bedroom wall consisted almost exclusively of Gene Simmons leering at me with his bat wings, monster boots and lycra still bemuses me now.
Not that Keith fared any better with his Flanagan & Allen knitted sweater, although to be fair his jeans didn’t have a crease, so I can’t be too harsh. Andy however went a tad too far the other way, opting for a red bandana, a red and white ‘rising sun’ sleeveless t-shirt and tight bright red fake leather trousers. Confidence way beyond his years that boy. He’d even adorned the top of his bass amp with the obligatory-if-you’re-a-bass-player-in-a-rock-band goat’s skull for an extra menacing edge.
And so onto the stage we strode at the allotted time – me as Dougie Howser MD, Keith as Magnum p.i. and Andy as a day-glo extra from Tenko. “Kill Your Sorrow” kicked us off and amazingly we weren’t kicked off the stage as soon as we started. Despite looking like a right bunch of losers, we didn’t suffer any technical malfunctions, nor indeed bowel malfunctions as we negotiated the more technical aspects of the set and 30 minutes later my jumper was lightly glistening with a bit more B.O. than it had when we’d first arrived.
Don’t let any of these tossers that permeate the NME tell you any different – you can claim to be an ‘artist’ who requires no gratification from his or her audience, but the truth is that everyone who gets into a band wants to be liked, and the applause we got from the 50 or so punters who’d mostly turned out to see Celestial Skies was wonderful wonderful wonderful. So too was Rosie, a girl from college who I’d persuaded to come along with a couple of our mutual friends – she’d been the object of my desires since I’d found my ‘place’ in the gaudy-yet-expensive college common room.
The area where I spent most of my time was known as the ‘hippie corner’, a lazy term coined by the football trendies (another lazy generalisation there) opposite us, as all the long-haired types congregated there. In my desperation to find an identity and forever banish the all-boys-school dogma from my brain, I craved acceptance there. Astonishingly, despite resembling The Karate Kid rather than Jon Bon Jovi, I found it almost immediately. Rosie was one of the first established members of the hippie corner to make me feel welcome and I fell for her straight away, despite the fact that she had a boyfriend who didn’t wear Burton menswear or have his hair just above his ears.
Anyway she was there and she was suitably impressed with the gig – as was her boyfriend. Any visions I might have had of sweeping her off her feet and carrying her out to the car (once I’d carried out the bass drum first of course) soon evaporated as I learned my first valuable rock and roll lesson – it’s a rare breed of woman that happily goes for the drummer over the singer or guitarist. Well, they carry less crap around with them, don’t they?
And so I took a stand and initiated a huge image change – I stopped having the crease ironed into my jeans, trusting that such a move would doubtless unlock the chastity belts of Solihull’s young women who weren’t aware that I was a drummer until it was too late and they were helping polish the cymbals. I’d given up on Rosie by my 2nd year at college, but I wasn’t too bothered by that, as I was having too much fun with my contemporaries in the hippie corner as well as with my bandmates at rehearsals. Keith and I became particularly close, bonded by a mutual love for Birmingham City and reciting Not The Nine O’Clock News sketches parrot-fashion.
His guitar playing at the time was outstanding and he’d even got used to the idea of how to correctly position his gob near his microphone whilst my efforts on the drums were also improving fast thanks mainly to a kit upgrade courtesy of my Dad who bought me a 2nd hand red-wine Maxwin 5-piece with cymbals as a present for passing 8 ‘O’ levels. But Andy was about to drop the bomb – he wanted to go to university in a year’s time, hand in his goat’s skull and plastic trousers and…gulp…quit Minotaur. To be fair, he was showing signs of maverick tendencies as time went on, like busking with his flute in Solihull town centre outside Woolworths. Rock and roll this was not.
Keith was irritated far more than I was by stuff like this – but then maybe that was because I’d fallen in love for the first time. Debbie was a sweet girl who’d been a member of the hippie corner but there was nothing ‘hippie’ about her – just a lovely smile and a sweet disposition. How she fancied me was difficult to fathom, but when she made a 15-mile drive through thick fog to come and watch me play a gig with the lads at The Lyndon pub in Sheldon, I figured she must have had a soft spot for Glen Medeiros look-alikes in country casuals from Burton who reeked of Insignia.
It was this first relationship (ultimately doomed of course) that brought me to a whole new level of songwriting – the ballad. The love-lorn plea to a girl that you either lose, are about to lose, have lost some time ago or are desperate to get hold of. I fell into the 2nd category with Debbie and it was quite obvious early on that whilst she was very fond of me, she had plans abroad once college was done and I wasn’t going to be part of those plans from any distance. And so, during a holiday in France with her family, I wrote some lyrics in my love-sick state and had a 2-chord progression that I really liked which quickly morphed into a full song.
I played the song as best I could to Keith & Andy upon my return to the rehearsal room, and instead of the usual “Yeah, it’s ok…” or “I like the riff bit anyway…” comments that accompanied playing our tunes for one another, this one elicited a different response.
“Bloody hell, that’s not bad”
“Who did you rip off for that one? Bryan Adams?”
“Did I teach you that chord? I must have…”
Clearly I was onto a winner, or at least a decent each way bet, and ‘Stay In My Heart’ was to become our show-stopper. But I’m getting a tad ahead of myself once again.
As shows playing our own stuff were as commonplace as major trophies in Birmingham City’s cabinet, we were offered the chance to play every Thursday at The Lyndon a local Solihull pub in support of resident band Kick the Fridge – a vastly experienced 3-piece of seasoned pros who for some reason felt we could add something to their evening’s entertainment. This meant learning a load of cover versions and sprinkling in the odd original track to see if anyone noticed and either laughed or walked out.
It was the best 5 or 6 months of education that the 3 of us got from both playing better together AND watching just how the pros did their job of entertaining a crowd with cover versions. Really imaginative choices like “Back On The Chain Gang” “Shipbuilding” and “Late In The Evening” were key parts of their set and it was immaculately played and sung every single time.
Amazingly it rubbed off on us and our versions of ‘Hammer To Fall’ and especially Quo’s “Big Fat Momma” became just as important in warming up the crowd during our support slots. We got paid a little too as I recall and I really felt as though we were starting to go places.
But we still hadn’t found a bloody singer, and had barely auditioned anybody in 2 years to take the job, save for one session where a drunk, a girl and a ginger turned up to have a go – we’d have taken the girl, but Keith was adamant that no rock band could ever be successful with ‘a tart at the front’
I was pissed off at this, but the situation did have its upsides, particularly one night about a month after Debbie had broken up with me giving the classic ‘it’s not you it’s me’ line. We were booked to play a set at the (legendary) Berkswell Reading Rooms, about a mile from where she lived, and we were supporting a band from my 6th form college called Pathfinder that I’d made good friends with in the hippie corner.
We arrived to soundcheck to find Pathfinder having a right old hoo-hah with the PA they’d hired in for the night – a monstrous one with far too many buttons which looked like it’d come straight off The Ark and made nothing work anything more than intermittently - a drawback for a public address system I must be argued.
“Stuff this” huffed Keith after 15 minutes looking on at the panic around us, “Stay here – I’ll go and get our little vocal PA from home – it’ll handle a room this size” and off he went, returning around 20 minutes before we were due onstage with the dinky little set-up we used at rehearsals, and seconds later we’d rigged it up and hoped that we could sound halfway decent with no mics on our amps or drums.
And I wasn’t even using my drums. We’d agreed beforehand that I’d use Pathfinder’s kit to save time between bands. Simon, their drummer, was dead friendly and very accommodating about letting me use his gear, but as any drummer will tell you, playing on someone else’s kit is like playing a piano with gloves on – you can do it, but you’re always on the edge of a monumental cock up. His ride cymbal for example was not at the regulation height that most sticksmen are used to (about waist level to your immediate right of the bass drum) but rather at shin level hidden away underneath 2 huge tom-toms. Add to this news that filtered through backstage – the toilets – that Debbie had arrived just added to the pressure. Stay In My Heart was 2nd last song in our set and already a crowd-pleaser at The Lyndon.
Against all the odds, we stormed it. Keith’s decision to use our PA was spot on – everything clear as a bell, which meant a lot to me as I could sing our show-stopper with added zeal, knowing Debbie would hear every word. I tried to catch her eye as I sung it, but catching my stick on the wrong part of a kit I didn’t know concerned me more so I remained the consummate professional instead. It worked a treat and the set was a triumph – well it was ok, but a darn sight better than how Pathfinder fared, as their poor singer Jim wrestled with his Norman Collier Signature Series microphone, the occasional guitar riff farted out of one side of the PA and you might as well have been watching White Stripes, the amount of bass that could be heard.
“Sabotage” was the cry from several band members – or “S…b…ge” as the singer put it on stage, with all accusing eyes resting on Keith due to his little PA brainwave. Harsh. And unfounded. But it gave Keith a good laugh. As for Debbie? Nowhere to be seen – and never seen or heard from again. Can’t have been that good a song, then.
Not long after, Andy packed his knotted handkerchief - with dreams of rock stardom presumably replaced by a desire to successfully interrupt Bamber Gascoigne on a starter for 10 – and headed for University Oxbridge or something. Naturally the media frenzy that surrounded this event meant replacement bassists were queuing for miles to gain entry into the Dangerous Games innercircle of scum…at least that was the theory. The reality meant we had to settle for a mate down the Saddlers Arms.
Everyone has a pub to which they gravitated at the expense of all others in their late teens and early twenties, and The Saddlers was unquestionably mine. This went for all my friends too, mainly because it was the only pub in central Solihull that you didn’t have to queue to get in on a Friday – plus the fact that despite several attempts to modernise the pub and drive out the riff-raff, the place always possessed the ripped wallpaper and sticky carpet that made it a natural and comfortable habitat for rockers and punks, whilst also effectively scaring off the trendy troublemakers with their pullovers round their shoulders and what looked like tenpin bowling shoes on.
In all the years I spent drinking in there, I can honestly count the number of fights I witnessed on the fingers of one hand – and one of those was a ridiculously girlie exchange of fingernails, hairspray and bangles between Fluff & Andy Madgwick over some dodgy boiler they’d both shagged. Rockers don’t scrap as much as the Daily Mail would have you believe you know.
This was where many a rock star hopeful broke bread with one another and persuaded themselves and those around them that stardom was imminent. Matt Hudson was a local bassist who got wind of the band’s need for a new member and swiftly offered his services. I accepted and before you knew it he was in the band…and rubbing Keith up the wrong way within seconds.
You know the bit in Spinal Tap where Derek Smalls says that his cohorts David & Nigel are like fire and ice and that his role is to be “somewhere in the middle…like lukewarm water in a sense”? Well that was me with Keith & Matt.
The die was cast when Keith took exception to Matt’s bass amp which in truth was too small and pokey to make itself heard above the din that Keith & I were creating, but Keith’s criticisms were a tad blunt – I think the words ‘badger farts’ and ‘no more powerful than’ were used - and Matt shot back with a 10-minute rant about how Status Quo (Keith’s favourite band) represented “everything that’s wrong with the British music industry at the moment.” Touchpaper well and truly lit, I awaited the first punch to be thrown, but this was 1980’s Solihull, so Keith just packed up his gear in silence and left immediately.
24 hours later, he’d left the band. Meeting me at a rugby club where the Trevor Burton Band were playing, he explained that he would rather twat Matt than play with him and the joy of playing his own songs was now gone with Andy’s departure. And that was that really. I couldn’t persuade Keith to reconsider and he went back to playing covers in a group called Wild Turkey, whilst Matt was twattishly unrepentant in the Saddlers about his role in breaking up the band. So he fucked my band up and then proceeded to fuck my girlfriend a year or so later. Quiet the catalyst for change, that boy.