This week marks 10 years since my last gig. At the time I didn’t know this. I hadn’t clocked any suggestions that things weren’t working or I had done anything monumentally terrible or a series of small infractions leading to an unceremonious ejection.
On this I have form in a classic wood for trees sense. Blissful or willful ignorance in romance or a band it amounts to the same outcome.
Anyway, back to the gig.
A last minute booking at a metal night at the Hope and Anchor looked like a great opportunity to play a historical music venue where many of my favourite bands started playing. I’m not quite sure what it was about the band’s indie-pop-prog-rock songs that made the promoter think that we would be the right fit for a night of nu-metal (*dunga-dunga-SQUEE* with obligatory turntables and rapping), the widdliest of widdly 80s hair metal tribute and face-pullingly heavy sludge.
It was an odd fit because I like that type of music (yes, even nu-metal – it was the early 00s, we all have our musical shame) so normally it would be me in the audience rather than on stage. Visions of the bar scene from The Blues Brothers flashed before me as we soundchecked. This only intensified as we were told the headliners had dropped out so we would take their spot for the night.
Cue a hasty revision of the set list, dropping the comedy songs, ballads (unless they had big rock outros) and nervously checking to see if our amps would go up to 11.
It was fine though. Despite metal fans’ fearsome reputation for the most they are a tolerant bunch. No one threw anything at us, set us on fire or left in a mass exodus.
With so much volume and distortion my budget guitar pick ups were squealing horribly with feedback so I stepped off stage and walked into the crowd still playing the furious outro of the last song. It was the closest thing to rockstar I had done and was a good way to end a brief musical career.
A few weeks later what was meant to be a practice session ended my modest dreams in a mumbled not-really-an-explanation-explanation and a hurried flurry of notes to reimburse me for the recording costs of the EP. At the time it was a unthinkingly cruel move driven by shame and cowardice.
Like any break-up I did not handle it well (although there was less vodka and Resident Evil 2 marathons this time). It was more in sorrow than in anger that I typed up a short blog announcing my departure and then began the slow systematic removal of all traces of me from the band website. The irony of my soundtrack to this act is not lost one me (“…and the band plays on…”).
This was a monumentally dumb thing to do.
I take a walk down memory lane / no-one sees a thing but they can pretend
Fast forward to now, a decade has passed and there is no 10th anniversary release or tour. The band came to a close about two years after my unceremonious booting. Still, I miss it. One of the great stories of parenthood is not being able to remember life before your children. Thanks to the internet that doesn’t have to be true! The hive mind of all knowledge will help remember the bits I can’t!
That was the plan anyway. A quick Google through memory lane to see what I could find.
The answer is not much. My ruthless Stalinist purge of my online presence means only fragments remain. I found the old band material on YouTube and had mixed feelings on seeing the band play on (and even more when I stumbled across the recruitment ad). There are no biographies, the band website is now a 404 message and any songs I uploaded to those pages are long gone.
This may be a blessing in disguise as it saves my children from the potential future Creme Brulee style embarrassment when they get older but not having any newspaper cuttings of my glory days still leaves me feeling a little sad.
I had no illusions of rock stardom, I had always looked to the Manics as my band template: a group of close friends bonded by shared musical and cultural interests. It just didn’t work out like that and the friendship never really recovered after such a shabby dismissal. It didn’t help that a few years after I bumped into my former band mate at a gig and after the sheepish how are yous gave me a copy of their latest album. He pointed to my name on the credits (“as a tribute to you”) as he had used my solo on one of the songs.
The last sentence looks like the height of muso-wankerdom but to me it was a big deal. Lead playing did not come easily to me so I focused mainly on riffs and chords. I was tasked with writing a solo for a song so I did. I went for the Johnny Marr approach of listening to the track loud on headphones until the melody popped out. It wasn’t flashy but it was mine and it worked.
Listening to the CD when I got back revealed that it had been re-recorded and given a shiny flashy coat of paint that made it unrecognisable to me. Think Smelly Cat.
When the light at the end of tunnel isn’t a freight train
Back to 2016 again and a trawl through YouTube found the tracks from the EP I recorded with the band. When I listen to them I can recognise my playing and my parts (if you listen on headphones I’m panned to the left hand side). I’m relieved to find out that I hadn’t had my bits re-recorded (the previous singer had some of his vocals removed and replaced) and it still sounds good. It’s a time I can still be proud of. I overcame crippling shyness and stage fright to play on stage, I recorded guitar on an EP, I heard someone say in genuine awe “that was the best thing I’ve ever heard” when we played my song live (and no she wasn’t my girlfriend or blood relation) and managed to meet some good friends along the way.
Travels through time and (My)Space
On my hunt through internet history I remembered my old online profiles. I’m surprised that MySpace is still going. It’s all about music now rather than being the technicolour car crash it was before. I was disappointed to see that (my first) blogs are no longer there but that disappointment is partly balanced by finding some old photos of me from 2006.
More importantly I found my old music profile page. I set this up in the days after to try and fish for a new band. Nothing really came of it, the London scene was looking for ambitious virtuosos to take them to the big time (I would have settled for minor league indie fame with a hardcore devoted fan base).
Guitarists are ten a penny so the barrier to entry was insanely high. It felt uncomfortably more like Internet dating than finding a band. It was also obvious that few of the bands that did contact me had listened to any of my tracks.
3 out of 4
On my abandoned page I found my demos and with a few spins of the refresh wheel I was able to get three of my songs to play (weirdly only on my phone, not desktop).
Listening to these tracks was an odd experience – unlike the EP tracks these were all my own in their strangely named and lowest of lo-fi recordings. I remember recording them by putting a cheap mp3 player near the amp and doing them in one take.
I listened to songs I hadn’t heard or played in years. Thankfully the songs are without lyrics. Their names are dumb enough without adding tortured rhymes to them.
I listened amazed by it all, my brain trying to catch up with what I had played let alone how to play it.
What’s the point in always looking back / when all you see is more and more junk?
Picking over the wreckage of abandoned ambition wasn’t an maudlin self pity party sound tracked by the ghosts of a former band though.
Going through the old songs and memories of those days made me remember how much I had achieved in those 18 months.
Listening to those old songs helped me find my songs and inspired me to pick up my guitar again and play a special show to a tiny fan in the making. I played to my youngest daughter as she rocked on the bed smiling at the music. Her little face only darkening when I stopped, a gentle prompt to keep making good noise.
A mixture of trial and error and muscle memory unlocked some of the secrets of the odd chords and weird voicings I used to love. This helped me remember the other songs I had written and what had inspired them.
It helped me remember a time where when I picked up my guitar I did more than just play Manics and Silent Hill covers.
While I was meant to be writing this cursed post I hunted through my old hard drive to see if I had the originals. Instead I found a recording of the full band version of Zombie Baby Mermaid (told you, dumb titles and in-jokes).
A little searching later and I put together a basic video (just a photo and song) and put it on YouTube.
This trip down memory lane let me find missing spark of inspiration and showed me that my musical dreams are embers not ashes. For the first time in weeks when I wake up it’s not Steam Powered Giraffe playing on my internal juke box but my own songs.