My dear and trusted friend Phil Docker recently put a link up on one of his social networking pages to the film “The Decline Of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years”, a documentary filmed by Penelope Spheeris (who went on to successfully direct Wayne’s World) in and around Los Angeles during the Glam rock & Metal explosion that occurred on Sunset Strip in the late 80’s.
It’s a perfect social document of the time; decadent, free-spirited, unapologetic, amoral and was probably just as much fun to be in the thick of as it looked – at least in the short term.
Most of the featured live bands on the film never amounted to much in the great pantheon of hard rock and metal. Odin, London, Lizzy Borden, Seduce…just 4 acts that never really troubled the gold-disc makers. Looking back at these bands’ earnest collective belief in being THAT close to ‘making it’ (and the countless ‘talking heads’interviewed from the Strip) reminded me of how close I thought I’d come to such a position – only to realise that I was nowhere near, and indeed nowhere near as close as bands like London got, even if they’re not lauded by all and sundry 2 generations down the line.
My 1st band Dangerous Games were never going to make it – we never had a proper singer or frontman for 3 whole sodding years, and whilst Paper Lace had a singing drummer, you couldn’t really rabble rouse the attending masses at the Red Lion in Knowle from behind your wine-red Pearl Maxwin. That was my ‘rock star in nappies’ era – the basic training one requires in basic mastery of the instrument and not saying the most unbelievably stupid things in-between numbers. The latter never goes away, even if the former fades off.
Now, Shotgun Wedding DID get close. Once. I think. At least we figured we were close, as CBS Records had sent us a letter that didn’t involve death threats if we sent any more demo tapes, which is what we’d become accustomed to from other labels. Not only that, but said letter in 1989 suggested that they were coming to see us play. Live. And to this day, I have no idea whether someone turned up at Edwards No. 8 to see our blistering set that night and slunk away unimpressed, or whether they just remembered that Eastenders was on and Arthur Fowler was smashing up his front room over the Christmas Club money. Perhaps if we’d smashed up an axe or two…but no, we could barely afford the batteries for the Arion stage guitar tuners, let alone buy new guitars at the drop of a hat.
I’m still convinced to this day that THAT line-up with Jon, Gray, Dave, Paul & myself had the requisite dynamic, charisma and potential to be nurtured into something huge by a CBS-type, and that’s even though subsequent line-ups of the band were arguably better musically speaking.
City Kidds/Sons Of God were the band that did actually get signed in the mid 90’s. To a record company whose artist roster included Jet off of Gladiators (a-haaaaa!) and a country singer who looked like Barry Fry in a Stetson. No really. That said, there was a signing session where the MD of the company invited us 4 reprobates to the Hyatt in Brum where we would meet the ‘money man’ whose investment in the company was coming our way for recording costs etc and sign on the dotted line…although not sign in blood as Manowar did back in the 80’s. Dressed in loincloths to boot. And furry boots to boot too. What a band they were
Anyway, I digress – things at the signing get-together were going swimmingly. We had dined at a nearby restaurant with the record company boss, the investor from Germany - who bore a striking resemblance to Gene Wilder - and his wife…who didn’t.
Back at the Hyatt, contracts were thrust under our somewhat inebriated noses and the blue ink flowed, cigars were lit and there was much rejoicing. Under the affluence of incohol I felt the jollity of the occasion was just right to tell a couple of quality jokes I’d heard at work a few days before.
“Here, here” I began waving my hands to attract attention, “Why did the feminist cross the road?”
“Dunno” came the traditional response from the lads in unison.
“To suck my big, fat, hairy cock!” I offered.
My band mates collapsed in fits of laughter as Ricky Gervais often does when Karl Pilkington says – well – most things. The record company boss chuckled and wobbled his appreciation, but Gene Wilder and spouse did their best Queen Victoria face. Somewhere in my mind I reckoned “Ah – lost in translation probably” and pressed on urgently with gag No. 2
“How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb?”
The lads couldn’t speak, still in recovery from punch line No.1 and Gene Wilder & co. just stared at me.
“Three!” I stated defiantly. “One to change it and the other two to take it in turns to suck my big, fat, hairy cock!”
I reclined back into my armchair and watched the boys wet themselves a second time, satisfied that my material was of sufficient quality to help the evening along with a swagger, not noticing the wild-eyed stare of Wilder’s missus straight at me. Evidently, she was a bra burner par excellence. The couple quickly made their excuses and retired for the night…never to be seen again. Ever.
I don’t think the lads ever blamed me for Gene Wilder’s subsequent disappearance off the face of the earth (and with it his heavy investment) as he was probably a bit of a chancer anyway, but without the money required to finance an album, the whole thing fragmented very very slowly over the next 2 years. A great, great shame, as in my opinion that album would have been perfect for the time with 4 very, very talented musicians working superbly well together. I remember how I felt inspired to be a better musician & songwriter myself during that time, simply because the other guys were just as good, if not better in that department. The album we had planned would in my opinion have pre-dated a lot of what was considered vital late 90’s rock. Big fat hairy cock rock, perhaps.
I had 2 other dalliances with original artists as the 90’s became the Noughties who were desperate to hit the big time. One was a four piece (well it was three before I showed up) called Silver, who came from Brum and were fronted by two precociously young guitarists call Jim & Matt. My connection with them was bass player Martyn, a stocky, funny and very gifted left-handed bass player who was a drinking pal from the Saddlers Arms and had dabbled with many a band himself in his personal bid to forge a career.
Martyn called knowing I was at a loose end musically to ask whether I could learn 4 or 5 tunes with these lads as they had an important showcase coming up in London at the prestigious Water Rats pub in Kings Cross.
I say prestigious, but only in that it was a regular haunt of A&R man, not that it possessed any kind of charm or attraction of its own. Still, it appeared to be the best place to get your songs heard by someone vaguely powerful within the industry.
The songs were very indie and by definition should not have been to my taste whatsoever – but songs like ‘Bigger Picture’ were very melodic indeed and Jim & Matt were grateful to me for giving the material the little bit of swagger they were looking for. And so, one wet Monday night we packed the gear into a people carrier and travelled down the M40 to attempt to impress.
Band showcase nights such as these are terrifically frustrating for all concerned – each act gets around 25-30 minutes to do their stuff and then with no encore and barely a pause for breath, they and their equipment get hauled off the compact stage and another hopeful hauls theirs on. Glamorous it is not. I’d only brought my ‘breakables’ with me i.e. cymbals, sticks, snare drum, pedals as a basic 4 piece kit was provided, but when changeover time came for Silver to get up there, the urgency amongst all of us led to what must have looked like blind panic watching from the bar.
You get no soundcheck, barely a chance to check that vocal mics are even switched on for you, and then that’s it – get on with it and impress us.
It’s such a blur of amps, guitars and earnest sweat and endeavour that it takes something of extraordinary quality to stand out musically and certainly visually on nights like these…and given that Jim & Matt were a little too earnest and not striking enough as a front pairing, our 25 minute run through was a little perfunctory and felt utterly anti-climactic…and so it proved when nothing came of it. I should imagine the percentage of bands that profit from such nights is ridiculously small. And yet it still endures and entices more and more bands with every passing year. A mystery.
Prussian Blue was the other band with aspirations of being original who called upon my services. Now, straight away I need to clear something up – I know now (and didn’t then) that there was an American (?) girl acoustic duo somewhere called ‘Prussian Blue’ that apparently prided itself on being a far-right political band with a deeply subversive and threatening white supremacist subtext…the ‘Prussian Blue’ who called me up could not have been further removed from that, but I suspect that Kate & Dave will have been dogged by associations with the other PB since they began.
Prussian Blue UK was essentially a calm, subtle Fleetwood Mac type of band who needed a drummer for a mini-album project they were in the middle of. Plus a few gigs too here and there. Kate & Dave were a married couple on vocals and bass respectively and were unbelievably pleasant and relaxed about their bid for immortality. I always stopped short of thinking they were in any way delusional, because that firstly seemed rude, but secondly they gave the impression of ‘que sera sera’ about their quest. It struck me that the mere process of songwriting, arranging, recording and performing their own material made them totally happy, almost regardless of how many showed interest in it - a very self-assured self-indulgence perhaps.
This was the late 90’s and by this time I’d recorded a good half a dozen demo tapes in studios around the Midlands of varying spit & sawdust qualities. My session with Prussian Blue, however, was to take place at Chipping Norton Studios, right in the heart of Jeremy Clarkson country – a sprawling, hi-tech state-of-the-art studio where Jeff Beck had recorded parts for his seminal “Guitar Shop” album, no less. Gulp.
Kate & Dave were that laid back about the session that it didn’t bother them that I’d only be able to join them on the 1st day after I’d finished work, which meant a 7pm arrival. Maybe later if traffic misbehaved. “No problem!”, Kate told me cheerily, “We’ll just record a song without drums first”. And so, when I arrived, sweating profusely from a frenetic drive down the A roads leading to the Shires and desperate to make up for lost time, Kate & Phil calmly told me not to rush as they wanted to play me the song they’d recorded with their lead guitarist, Phil – and anyway, dinner was being served, so go and freshen up in your giant double residential bedroom first, there’s a good session drummer.
Dinner? I’d just driven past 3 Little Chefs en route and salivated knowing that I’d probably only get a bag of Monster Munch, Kit Kat and a cuppa at the studio – instead it was Salmon En Croute with Dauphinoise potatoes, served up by a proper chef on a large oak table in an upstairs dining room. It was 2 hours before I was even setting cymbal stands up, and recording didn’t begin in earnest until after midnight…’how much was this COSTING them????’ I wondered.
I was only playing on 2 songs and thankfully I nailed my parts after a few run throughs with a very thorough producer on both tunes – maybe I was so used to the ‘so little time’ “oh that’ll do’ approach to recording on a budget that I couldn’t conceive of a project where ‘time equals money’ mattered so little.
Once I was done I retired to my bedroom (for some reason my most vivid memory of that entire weekend was watching Damon Hill win the F1 title in Suzuka in those early hours on my room’s telly there!) and the next day I came back down into the control room as instructed mid-morning to observe a similarly chilled out attitude to laying down my percussion tracks on the 2 tunes. I must’ve recorded tambourine, weird African-style shaker and cabasa parts for them to choose later on which was most suitable for the songs concerned.
And that was that – done. But the mini-album was quietly agonised over for some time to come before I heard it weeks down the line – it sounded exactly of its genre, but funnily enough, whilst the songs I played on were fine, it’s the song they recorded whilst I was gripping the steering wheel negotiating roundabouts and dead hedgehogs that came out best of all – and I still listen to and love that song now on my iPod (it’s a cover of Sandy Denny’s ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’ where Phil plays some quite thrilling Peter Green-esque solo bits that still send chills down my spine) so I wonder whether my presence & contribution really made any difference to their chances of success.
As it was, we played several Brum gigs to help promote the mini-album which were very enjoyable for what they were, but silently, everybody involved knew that there little chance of getting on in the business and before long, Kate & Phil began their next project with a different set of session players, no doubt attaining a similarly pleasing result and playing similarly happy cosy gigs in support of it.
I often wonder how any of these original bands of mine (especially the early ones) would have fared in a youtube/myspace/facebook/twitter world where it’s so easy to run tunes up the proverbial flagpole for the world to salute or deride. Maybe when I finally get to complete my album of original songs, I’ll see how these 15 songs of mine are received in the digital age. Not that that will give any indication of how Shotgun Wedding would’ve done by comparison for example…I guess it’s my own little self-indulgent, ‘que sera sera’ attitude to it all.
And 25 years on from the plethora of musicians, wannabees and desperate cases showcased in the ‘Decline Of The Western Civilization’ movie, it’d be interesting to see how many of those individuals who were filmed/interviewed are embarrassed or indeed shocked at the person they were then compared to what they are now; how their blind ambition matched up to the reality of how their lives panned out…especially that bloke from ‘Wet Cherry’ – if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know EXACTLY who I mean.
Of course, some of those talking heads did ‘make it’ in one regard or another. The 4 members of what became Vixen all appear (that was an entertaining gig at Goldwyns-growl…), there’s Dave Mustaine & Megadeth of course…and Faster Pussycat too – all those 3 scaled pretty decent heights, suffered the consequent law of diminishing returns that almost inevitably follows, and have now returned in one form or another to play either summer festivals or the increasingly popular ‘cruise ship concert’ market that seems to be gathering pace recently.
I played a gig on a barge once with my brother, floating down the Severn…does that count in the same league? Nah – guess not. But in the end, I don’t think I’d swap the gigs on barges, mild electrocution by dodgy DAT tape players, archaic crimpers or collapsing drum racks that I encountered trying to be a success for the struggle the Sunset Strip lot went through for little or no reward.
I’d have swapped the weather though.