Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Was my band

Yay, I had a band once. It was formed in Hawkhurst High Street in ’74 or ’75, and there were five or six of us. I was the lead singer but sometimes vocals were by one or other of the girls, one of whom was a virtuoso pianist who never soloed. We used to bury her intricate music deep in the mix like a beating heart.

We were a different sort of band – people could see that. From the word go our records didn’t sound like other bands, and they were very cool. There was an African influence, Zairean rumba (Franco was one of the few people we namechecked), but also, for example, there was a late-flowering glory of a single that was the trio of Schubert’s Great C Major symphony - we ran a 4/4 beat over the 3/4 trio but you could feel both the rhythms at the same time. When we played live people didn’t know what to expect. Sometimes we rocked and sometimes it was all acoustic; it depended on the seasons. Or we might do a whole set of covers, every song from an album by Lorraine Ellison. Then they’d find out what an incredible voice our pianist had; they left shattered, drained by the intensity.

We were taking rock’n’roll to a completely new level. The press were bewildered but people who were into it could see that besides this band everything else suddenly seemed like sketches. Now you could see at last what music was capable of. Suddenly it had a direction, it could change things.

The album covers were photographic. One of them, I think it was a kind of country album, had a picture of us in summer standing on a drive in front of an orchard – the frame was yellowy green, the lettering italicised, and it looked like a tacky sixties pop-folk band. On another record cover, a twelve-inch 45, one of the guys sprawled naked and full-frontal in a bed of nettles.

After two or three albums we went more undergound, it became fragmented and a matter of rumours. Sometimes people weren’t in the band for a year or more. In press interviews we referred to strange times, nothing worse, or I said that the difficulties were essentially artistic and technical. I admitted that this had to mean human difficulties too. But all it really meant was that we went silent. Then one day we’d show up without warning playing in a pub on Eastbourne sea-front. People who caught those gigs couldn’t believe it. Suddenly, there we were, right in their lives. And the music was bigger and stranger than ever. Outside in the cold sea-mist the waves were churning against the shingle from one tide to the next, and we put the whole sequence squarely into a middle-eight. Our songs didn’t stay fixed in one emotional moment; we captured the passing of time and produced marriages and children as well as love, the Norman advance from Pevensey (“Make haste to Hastings!”), the international construction of fuselage and jet engines, the engineers swarming, right up to the safe landing of passengers in a foreign airport.

One album cover was a snap of something I saw in Gildredge Road in Eastbourne, two ordinary girls in ordinary clothes crossing the road in the rain. One of them had reached the kerb and was looking over her shoulder; the other was striding forward and her face was lit up by something – a thought or a dream or a man. The meaning of the cover was plain: this was what was happening outside of rock’n’roll. It was where we were trying to get.

Later I was usually a guitarist; we had two. One of the things we were known for was playing the guitars separately. One of us would kick off, then the other would take over with a subtly different tone and the effect was magical. Then the first guitarist would pick it up again and it would develop from a sleepy, vaguely compelling melody until it thundered into the heartlands of teenage angst. (It was easy enough to combine both parts of the opening statements into a single tune for the acoustic guitar, but only I knew what it was really supposed to sound like.) Nothing was hurried; the words when they came needed no repetition and still the song was complete in four minutes or less. The guitars had the subdued promise of power that I’d read about in a review of Chris Spedding of Sharks, in about 1974 I think.

We weren’t in our own videos; I despised the usual stream of unimaginative quickfire poses for the camera. Our videos were documentaries of nights out in clubland, shockingly unframed, unidealized, candid and without comment.

I actually wrote some of the songs; for example “Paradise Hill” which anticipated my grandmother’s death, and “Rain in Chemical Country” which I thought up while on a train between Durham and York when I was at university. But most of what we delivered so effortlessly was beyond the reach of my modest compositional powers.

Sometimes we’d show up anonymously, backing a local blues singer at the Ypres Arms in Rye. Late in the gig he might stand aside and we’d do one song of our own, and it was only then that the audience were quite certain that it really was us.

As time went by I understood that I was now too old to be in a cool band, except perhaps as a gnarled Alex Harvey godfather, which I didn’t want to be. The rest of the band stayed young, and I receded into being a kind of presiding background figure who was rarely mentioned in interviews and didn’t often perform live.

Last Sunday I was coming inside after planting some shrubs in the chilly soil. Standing at the front door I heard a bonkle-de-bonkle noise that I thought was probably the collapse of some pots and pans on the drainer. Later I saw what had happened. The bridge of my classical guitar had torn away from the body and hung from the six strings which were twisted round and round each other. It was over the next few days when I kept going to pick up the instrument, which was now incapable of making any sound, that I found myself thinking. At last I remembered about my band.

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