Friday, 26 October 2012


As a performer, it is in my opinion, much easier to play to a large crowd than a small one. Being of a nervous disposition, I much preferred a sea of anonymity as apposed to being able to pick out the members on my guest list. With the big gig I could forget there was anybody there and just get on with the job, more intimate performances would lay bare my every imperfection. On an 80’s American tour I remember a hideous scenario where the audience were essentially, dining three feet away while we played. Burger and chips, chicken in a basket and pizza would pass under our noses as we tried to entertain, the music reduced to an irrelevant backdrop, in front of which, punters could top up their cholesterol levels. Being close up to the band is, I’m sure, great for the audience, but for me, ideally, they could listen via a ‘tannoy’ in the car park (where they could also indulge in food and beverage) I have never been in the slightest bit interested in football but when I heard we were to play Wembley Stadium, two nights on the trot, even my heart skipped a beat. This of course was the Wembley ‘of old’, known as the ‘Empire Stadium’, built in 1923 and famously dubbed ‘The Cathedral of Football’ by the great Pele. To me, and I am a football ignoramus, this fine building had infinitely more stature and atmosphere than it’s bigger, brasher replacement in 2007, but I am most definitely not qualified to judge. We were to be supported by the band, ‘Danny Wilson’. They had opened for us on an earlier American tour and who can forget, even today, their standout anthem, ‘Mary’s Prayer’. As we entered the stadium I remember being struck by how immaculate the turf was, albeit mostly covered by a layer of thick plastic in readiness for the seventy thousand strong crowd, a moment perhaps wasted on me, as I focused on the groundsman’s challenge, as opposed to the heady football scent of years gone by. (I’m afraid that lawns, along with fish and chips are areas of my life that have fallen foul of an inexplicable obsessiveness that, when indulged, can bore the pants off even the most earnest of listeners) During sound check, I looked out from behind my keyboard at a vast landscape of empty seats, in front of which, in only a few hours, would stand many more thousands of people. The stage was the largest I have encountered, larger than many gigs I have subsequently performed at and at each end was an ‘ego’ platform, somewhere to run to and deliver your solo. With video screens in place, this was big.
We had been opening our shows with a tune that started with an unaccompanied riff from a trumpet (being the bands trumpet player there was no avoiding this) In theatres I would be expected to stand in front of the curtain and blast out the said intro, and as it rose with stage illuminated, I would then be joined by the rest of the band as the tune began in earnest. To say the least this was stressful and sadly came at a time before my discovery of the trumpet players savour, the ‘beta blocker’. Tonight at Wembley stadium, as the lights went down and the vast crowd roared its appreciation, I would once again have to perform this task. It’s fair to say that in the past, my track record for acquitting myself without blemish, had not always gone to plan and certainly not unnoticed. If the man up front had been James Brown I would have been long gone and not before being heavily fined. Surely tonight, the Gods would be with me.

It’s 1996, and I am making some headway in a new band. This time it’s a three piece with a ‘Drum and Bass’ direction. After two or three releases, all bizarrely reaching the frustratingly inadequate heights of number 41 in the single charts, we would soon land a whopper, that for a brief moment in time would herald us as the new kids on the ‘Trip Hop’ block.
From time to time, as with every up and coming band, we would be expected to take part in promotional activity, that despite often being far removed from our chosen subject would somehow cross pollinate and haul in new audience members. There was to be a charity football match, held at, none other than the afore mentioned, Wembley Stadium, , where bands such as Blur, Massive Attack, and Supergrass, to name but a few would join forces to create two teams (England and Scotland) and fight it out on the ‘Hallowed’ ground. Overcome by the galling feeling that although this was one of the most inappropriate things I should consider doing (but how could I miss out on such an adventure) my ego swung into action and soon enough I could be overheard agreeing to be a team member, along with my band mate and co-producer who was, needless to say, in a different class to me at kicking a ball around a pitch. I was to play for England and my band mate Scotland, and were each issued a pair of boots and a strip with our names emblazoned on the back, however, there had been a mix up and my colleagues shirt had the, absent, Nicky Campbell's name on it. On his radio show the next day, he remarked on how he'd been able to play at Wembley without even being there. I have never much cared for Mr Campbell, but for the time it took to play out this charade, I would have happily swapped identities. As we lined up on the pitch for a pep talk with the ref, I have never felt more out of place, a fraudulent pretender with a very poor foot to ball coordination into the bargain.
As the match got underway, we didn’t have to wait too long for a goal. Daddy G of Massive Attack fame, a six foot five statue of sinew and muscle, planted a peach of a goal in the back of the net and celebrated with a mid air somersault. Shortly afterwards Damon Albarn repeated the process. In the second half my band mate broke away and beat everyone including the English keeper to score for Scotland, but there was no equalizer and the final score was 2-1. All very impressive.
For me however, this was to be a game of two halves. I was on the pitch for the first half, but off for the second, and difficult to determine which half showed the greater contribution. I do recall nearly coming into contact with the ball though. It was just before half time and I can remember willing the referee to blow his whistle and put me out of my misery (the football scene in the film ‘Kes’ will do as a good illustration) Shocked by the vast distances you are required to run and completely out of shape, I noticed a large youth approaching me with the ball. As a defender, I knew that my role was to keep the ball from going in the net and therefore I must, in theory, tackle this chap and dispossess him. Instead, as he got nearer to me, my survival instinct kicked in and I quite literally ran away. Luckily, another defender stepped in and mopped up my mess, temporarily
reducing the shame, or so I thought. To my horror, the whole match was filmed and we were each presented with a keepsake copy. I have lost mine, but Mr G (who, incidentally, has subsequently become my brother-in-law) takes pleasure in reminding me that his is safely tucked away in his DVD collection.

Back at the show and safely out onto the ‘ego’ platform without tripping myself up, deafened by the roar of the crowd I began to blow my own trumpet. I remember how it ricocheted around the stadium and from memory most of the notes were, this time, in the right place. Mid riff, I looked up to take in the crowd and noticed opposite me at the back of the venue, lost in a sea of people, my Methodist preaching and beret wearing Father with cine camera at the ready, sitting with my Mum in the Royal box. He would, throughout my childhood, refer to all pop music as ‘monkey music’ (I will leave you to evaluate alone the dubious undertones of this statement) To him, only classical music and ‘trad’ jazz were deemed acceptable exponents of the art. But here was his son, performing at Wembley stadium; surely there was something there to be proud of? (he once declared that he was genuinely disappointed that none of his children had become Doctors!) In time however, he would soften, and sometimes when off guard, could even be caught bragging to the neighbours. Music is a great communicator, and I’ve always been genuinely amazed at what monkeys can do.

Friday, 19 October 2012


Today, every song released into the ether is accompanied by the obligatory ‘remix package’. The engineer (or today, the shmuck sitting behind the computer, who is carrying out the roles of writer, producer, mixer, tea maker, psychoanalyst etc) will be required to commit the vocal to the nearest hard drive. This will then be sent to several of the hottest re-mixers, and in time, regurgitated gracelessly onto the dance floor, in an attempt to extend the songs demographic reach.
In 1987 this phenomenon was yet to be encountered, except perhaps in the world of ‘Dub’, where reggae originals would be mashed up by the likes of Osbourne ‘King Tubby’ Ruddock and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, ambient and vocally economical re-workings of the classics, laced with reverbs, delays and extra special effects. Our singer, who had perhaps one of ‘the’ definitive collections of ‘Dub’ records, would, with a bespoke ‘Bose’ system fitted to our tour bus, treat us to his own ‘ganjah’ fuelled ‘remix package’ as we drove through the night. Albeit enjoyable, to me the volume was blistering, harsh on the ear and the possible reason why my ‘top end’ hearing today, has had its edge smoothed away. As a captive audience member, only my ‘onboard’ bunk could provide me with a means of escape. We were told to always sleep with our heads towards the back of the bus, as a sudden stop could be a potential neck breaker. Our drummer however confided in me that on occasion he chose to lie ‘head facing the front’ so he could imagine he was ‘Superman’ as he fell asleep. There’s an irony in there somewhere, as time would attest to.
We had recorded a version of Bunny Wailer’s ‘Love Fire’ for our second album, produced by the late Alex Sadkin, who was responsible, amongst many other things, for the sublime ‘Nightclubbing’ album by Grace Jones. Despite the fact that remixes were rare in these days, it was decided that Lee Perry would be invited to put his spin on the track. A couple of the band had connections with Adrian Sherwood, a producer/engineer Perry was working with at the time, and to everybody’s excitement he had agreed to come along with Adrian to work his magic, and even more surprisingly, there was an invite to come to the studio and watch.

We were told to meet at a small underground London studio, sometime after 9pm. The studio door, once opened, led straight from the street down a long narrow corridor, thick with the inviting odour of the finest Jamaican weed. The first thing I noticed was a microphone lead that seemed to come from the main control room, but disappeared into a door way to the right of the corridor. This room turned out to be the toilet. In it, with door open, was Mr. Perry, standing with microphone in hand, capturing the sonic charms of the contents of his bladder. It might be fair to point out, that Lee Perry, was by some, and putting it mildly, regarded as eccentric (‘clinically insane’ might be more accurate) In 1980, he had burned his Jamaican ‘Black Ark’ studio to the ground. When asked why he might do such a thing his response was immediate, “I’m a toaster”. Silly question, I suppose.

Publishers live for one thing only, a ‘smash hit’ single. Album tracks are now of course redundant, as they will be left in cyber space to fester, with only the radio friendly singles being deemed worthy of a download. In the last fifteen years or so it has become increasingly common to send writers away to various parts of Europe to take part in ‘Song Camps’. Here, small numbers of young (and some not so young) hopefuls, will gather to chase that illusive ‘smash hit’. These trips are expensive, but in recent years publishers have been all too keen to stump up the cost, knowing that if their investment pays off, they can recoup it all from the writers share of the spoils. More recently, however, the ‘credit crunch’ has tempered this uncharacteristic seam of ‘temporary’ generosity.
In 2008 I was invited to attend a Finnish ‘Song Camp’. Ordinarily I would have declined but a good friend, and fellow songwriter had also agreed to go, so I decided to join the crowd. I knew we would have fun, and who knows, we may also come home with a means of repaying our un-recouped balance. My partner-in-crime, was to say the least, a character. A master of the funniest anecdote, he divulged to me, on the way to the airport, that as a teenager, he dated a now very famous singer with a stage name that rhymed with the word ‘sink’. He added that, instead of enjoying sex in the way most of us hope to do, she had a penchant for climbing to the top of his wardrobe fully naked, and launching herself onto him, where below he would be laid out on the bed, also naked, with crown jewels suitably prepared. With eyes watering, and grateful for my own more mundane approach to such activities, I couldn’t help imagining the unthinkable scenario of a bad landing.
Once arrived and acclimatized, shocked by the minus ten Helsinki temperature and the foot of snow that lay outside, we were split up into two’s and three’s and led off into various temporary studios to start the hit making. It was what happened at the end of the day though, that will stay with me for some time.
Dinner was going to be served in the sauna.

I don’t mind telling you, I have a fair skin. So fair, that once on a cross country run at school, a revolting child, by the name of Lee,( no relation to the afore mentioned) decided to ‘nick name’ me ‘ghost’. Thankfully none of my better friends were present at the time and it didn’t stick (until now perhaps). At any rate, the prospect of de-robing in front of perfect strangers of both sexes (in Finland, swimwear is not expected to be worn in a sauna) was filling me with dread, let alone the technical challenge of then eating, and chatting, all in a stifling heat and with the knowledge that another English songwriter present at the camp had the reputation of being hung like a donkey. It was too much to bear. After a quick ‘heads up’ with my UK colleges it was decided that we would wear towels and with a stiff upper lip we entered the sauna and sat down to enjoy dinner. As the booze kicked in, naively thinking my troubles were over, I couldn’t help picking out the words ‘ice pool’ and ‘plunge’ in an otherwise bland conversation. The horror of sitting semi naked in a sauna full of strangers whilst eating dinner, had now just been dwarfed by the incomprehensible horror of having to jump into a hole, cut from ice that had formed on a nearby lake. Fully stocked up on vodka, I ventured out to at least give it try and despite the fact that I could hardly swim at all, I was determined to at least somehow submerge my ghost-like body, now fully camouflaged by the snow, into the water. What followed was not elegant and to add insult to injury I spotted my ‘well endowed’ and bronzed colleague, exiting the ice cold water (I stress exiting) yet still in clear danger of tripping himself up on his appendage. Some guys have all the luck. This was my first and last song camp.

Back in the land of Lee, sitting at the back of the studio, like students taking part in a master class, we eagerly watched the proceedings unfold. Bladder emptied and the intro to his remix, quite literally ‘in the can’, Perry entered the control room resplendently, with ‘dreads’ folded up into an impossibly tall hat. He then proceeded to add his own touches to our tune. Various bottles were used as percussion instruments and smatterings of his ‘Toasting’ were overdubbed into the mix. In those days, all the effects had to be hand administered, as the remix went down to tape, unlike today where everything can be rehearsed and ‘automated’. Sherwood and Perry would stand at the desk and perform ‘live’ all the necessary ‘knob twiddling’, while we looked on in ‘smoke fuelled’ awe.
If you listen to this mix (which is still available on ‘YouTube’) you will hear at the beginning, Lee Perry, AKA ‘The Upsetter’ imitating a baby, crying out “I want my mummy” with his very own watery accompaniment in the background. A moment in time, I will treasure forever. It was, and still is, indeed a privilege to be able to say, that Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry had ‘pissed’ all over our tune.

Friday, 12 October 2012


1983. With a year under my belt at the RNCM and now on a concerted mission to escape, no matter what it might take, I had joined forces with two similarly likeminded friends to form a ‘horn section’. Trumpet, trombone, and sax, we called ourselves ‘Rebop’, a nod to the retro and all things ‘Bebop’, a 1940’s jazz sub-genre that was making a comeback in pop music at this time. Local Manchester bands such as ‘The Jazz Defektors’ and ‘Carmel’ would look to include brassy ‘bebop inspired’ elements if they could, not to mention ‘Working Week’ with the great Harry Becket, and Sade, who we would later meet whilst supporting her at the Ritz with the aforementioned JD’s. So it was simple, with a horn section, we could bolt ourselves onto the ‘already successful’ and rise from our classical ashes like the proverbial phoenix, but with no further need to hang out with our throwback friends in the college refectory. Not that simple, as it turned out.
‘Rebop’ soon augmented itself into a full band and inexplicably changed it’s name to ‘Blast of Defiance’, a move which would inevitably cause embarrassment and shame, thrusting us in a trajectory that was going nowhere, fast.
And then a light bulb illuminated itself.
Why don’t we write to Tony Wilson? Surely he would be able to assist us in our quest for freedom, and ideally, stardom? In our eyes, this man was the definition of cool. Not for the fact that he was the ‘anchor man’ for ‘Granada Reports’ but more specifically because he co-owned the ‘Hacienda’, the coolest club in Manchester by far, and also ran ‘Factory Records’ which, a few years earlier, had signed ‘Joy Division’. (I say ‘signed’, but in actual fact nobody signed anything at Factory. Their 50/50 deals were all hung on a handshake, a two fingered gesture to the ‘established’ mainstream record industry that had tap-rooted itself to the smug of London, and where it remains to date)
Our sax player, who was studying at the University, and to be fair, had a better chance of writing anything legible, was enlisted to pen our request, which when loosely transcribed, read, ‘Giz a job’. We certainly didn’t expect a reply, but a couple of weeks later, when the three of us found ourselves in the same room (as of course this was before emailing, texting and tweeting) it became apparent that Mr Wilson would like to have us perform for him in a private audition at the Hacienda at 10.30 AM the following Saturday morning. Nothing like this had ever happened to any of us before, it felt like we had won the ‘pools’ and we hadn’t even met the man. After much deliberation and frantic rehearsal we chose the Charlie Parker classic, ‘Yardbird Suite’ as our test piece. When the day came, and with the music memorised, we would embark on an adrenalin-fuelled walk down Oxford Road and on to Whitworth Street West where the curves of the Hacienda waited patiently for us. As we turned the corner, the first thing I spotted was Tony’s ‘British Racing Green’ MK 2 Jaguar parked up outside. From memory it was a ‘Vicarage’ rebuild with classic exterior and ‘state of the art’ interior and like the Union Jack, raised high above Her Majesty’s palace, this was proof enough that he was actually in there and we weren’t taking part in some kind of cruel dream (I have, from this point in my life, had a deep and meaningful love affair with the Jaguar MK2, indeed I would, some years later, buy for myself an inferior ‘Old English White’ example which would massively back fire on me as the ‘classic’ market crashed in the early 90’s, but would at least compensate me on my wedding day)
We were to set up on the dance floor, which was strewn with plastic cups, cans, bottles and flattened cigarettes, evidence of a popular Friday night out. This giant ex-ship-building space seemed unusually quiet and empty and as we looked up to the balcony just to the right of the famous suspended DJ booth, like something out of Hollywood, three shadows could just be made out. I instinctively new this was going to be important.

The music industry today is, perhaps, one of the rudest and ill-mannered environments known to man. As a songwriter, I can tell you that communication, be it to deliver the good news or the bad, is an essential commodity if the creative juices are to be kept flowing. Ironic then, that the advancement of technology which has opened up creative opportunity for so many (that would have ordinarily fallen at the first expensive hurdle) has allowed people in power to treat their associates with such disrespect. I am of course talking about the ‘unanswered email’.
Thanks to the MP3, finished mixes these days are delivered in this way. Fast and convenient, seconds after the production is complete it can be sitting in the ‘A n R’s’ inbox.
If I turn in a piece of work that is deemed ‘great’, I am showered with a plethora of email goo.
“this is genius” “loving the vibe” “out and out smash”
It will just keep coming.
If I turn in a piece of work, that is deemed ‘not great’, I am, then hit, by a wall of deafening silence. Then, of course, comes the dilemma.
Are they being rude? Or perhaps the email has not reached them? Self doubt, paranoia and a sinking Sunday feeling (even though it might be Tuesday) sets in and you know it’s only wishful thinking to suspect the technology may have let you down. I am of course not advocating going back to the days of driving to the post office with a cassette tape (always special delivery, to avoid the fabricated ‘lost in the post’ old turkey) and waiting for the phone call months later to receive feedback. No. Email is much better. It is the people at the other end who are to blame. Email has spawned an unwelcome culture of laziness, an inability to engage and just be honest.
“your tune is shit” “your lyrics are weak” “no one will play this”, would be music to my ears.

Back at the Hacienda, we wait patiently for the signal.
“ok darlings” Wilson shouts out, “off you go”
And so we did, blasting out our ‘Yardbird’ with defiance.
And then there was silence. But, soon enough, out of the morning fug of this unlit industrial space, emerged a small and skinny man with ‘John Cooper Clark’ hair. We honestly thought he was one of the staff, helping to clear up the place from the previous night.
“Hi, I’m Vini, I’d like you to play on my next album”
None of us new much about ‘The Durutti Column’, a post punk guitar and drum combo, that showcased the genius of Vini Reilly. Indeed it wasn’t until we got home and offloaded the news to our ‘viola playing’ housemate that we could judge, by his vivid shade of green, how special the gig we had landed was.
With a date in the diary to record at ‘Strawberry Studios”, I had somehow, from somewhere, landed the beginnings of my great escape. Tony Wilson, may you rest in peace.

Friday, 5 October 2012


At school I was a lazy daydreamer. Hunger and fatigue kicked in the moment my satchel crossed the threshold. Academically I would disappoint at every available opportunity, sporting an uncanny ability to retain absolutely nothing at all. I did however excel at music, something I can partially attribute to my Dad. He was a compulsive cine cameraman. Beret clad and permanently dressed in suit and tie, Channel 4 would not hesitate to document his behaviour, along with the hoarders and body-shockers, if they came across him today. Nothing went un-filmed and every second of my childhood became footage. As my siblings and I grew older though, the joy of this eccentricity would tarnish and wane. I’m sure he would have turned up at the hospital for the birth of our first child, if my wife hadn’t tricked us all into a last minute emergency home-birth.
In the summer of 1971, on a ‘compulsory’ holiday outing at the Scarborough Open Air Theatre, he spotted, somewhere in the corner of his viewfinder, a young seven year old boy copying the movements of a trombone player, armed with just a bucket and spade.
That Christmas there was a real life trumpet in my stocking (I don’t think my dad had planned for me to be a trombone player) and an obsession would begin (and be filmed).
My Mum had gone to my school and asked if there were any instruments available. Indeed there were; two trumpets, one at seven pounds and one at eleven. I was the lucky recipient of the seven-pounder, which being made of brass and un-lacquered, was dull and would after half an hour of playing, turn my hands green. This was of no consequence to me until I met the boy with the lacquered, eleven-pounder. I enquired naively as to why his trumpet was so shiny. “because I polish it .. stupid”. That year our local hardware store would discover that ‘Brasso’ was a very successful line. It never quite did the trick though.
My Dad, being a gifted academic, must have been disappointed and frustrated by my slow progress at school, but things would pick up after a successful audition at the Royal Northern College of Music. All I needed now was an O’level in Maths (which I had failed the previous year) and I was good to go. Thankfully in those days there was something called a CEE which somehow managed to scoop up the dullards, spoon feed them with the answers and force them into achieving an equivalent in something or other that amounted to an O’level. Shame all round.

Let nobody tell you “a music college is the same as a University, it’s just that everybody is studying music”. This is a lie.
Music College is a hot bed of young adults who have been spared a childhood, and with some coaxing from their parents, have willingly traded disco’s, youth clubs, record collections, pop music, fashion (and any knowledge of it), sex, alcohol, sport and of course drugs, for hour upon hour of practise on their chosen instrument. School then practise, sleep then school (after an hour of practise) and so it goes on. They think they have had a childhood but they haven’t. They have mutated into something else. They have become a ‘Walloon’.
And so in 1982 an unsuspecting Yorkshire boy, with trumpet in hand (by this time it’s a lacquered one) will arrive at such an establishment to discover the difference between a University and a Music College.
A ‘Hall of Residence’ is I think for most first year students a pretty good idea, an easy way to make new acquaintances even if they don’t manifest them selves in to life long friendships. This theory loses weight however when each one of the little f**kers is practising from dawn until dusk, filling my cell-like ex-seminary room with a cacophony of well-honed technique. Where are the parties? Where is the fresher’s ball? Where are the students for that matter?
When a Music College student is not practising or studying, you will find them in the refectory, for like humans they must eat to survive. It is here that I learn more about this culture. The brass players are the boozers and will display a brash and crude behaviour pattern. If you are a female brass player you must quickly learn to shed all femininity and ‘hang with the guys’. For both sexes an RNCM sweatshirt and unfashionable jeans are the order of the day (every day). String players will sit around sipping tea, reading books and discussing bowing technique while Opera singers burst into song between mouthfuls of pepperoni. Percussion students manage to combine refectory time with practise by hitting any available surface with a biro, while woodwind players shave their reeds into shape in readiness for more practice.
Practice, practice and more practice.
A riot if ever I saw one.
And so I have landed in the wrong place and must escape, some how.
It will be a year or so before I manage this and rest assured when I slip unceremoniously from this ship it is not something my Dad will decide to film. I am in good company though. As I face the Dean of Undergraduate Studies to be told my time is up he informs me that Howard Jones had gone in a similar way. With the singers hit single ‘What Is Love’ ringing round my head, I knew that I hadn’t found the answer to that question here, and must tread some pastures new.