Playing in a band againOctober 16, 2011
After a long time away from playing the guitar publicly, I have recently joined a local band. For nearly ten years, my job has taken me away from home on a very unpredictable schedule. Because I never knew where in the country I was going to be on any given weekday, it would have been unfair of me to play in a band when we might have to cancel gigs and rehearsals at very short notice. It would have made me unpopular with the rest of the band and the band very unpopular with places that booked us. However, my recent change in working circumstances has meant that I’m more or less in charge of my own diary again. It’s been a reminder what an ineffable joy that shared music can be and how it can bring together people who would never normally have crossed paths.
My history with bands is varied. I didn’t really start playing the guitar until I was seventeen which is a little too old to be really really good. I only played at home for several years before joining a band. I was prompted to start playing in a band when I and a group of friends used to frequent a pub called The Witchwood in Ashton-under-Lyne. It was known for the quality of its beer and its live music. I was dragged along to see a band called “The Method” who were a bunch of local session musicians knocking out loud and extremely accomplished blues-rock. Seeing these guys from just yards away was truly inspiring and was the catalyst for finding some like-minded people to play music with.
My first band was a blues-rock outfit called “Rude Mood” after the grammy-winning track by Stevie Ray Vaughan from his 1983 “Texas Flood” album. Through networking and small-ads I and bass-playing work colleague managed to scrape together a reggae-loving drummer, a harmonica-playing college lecturer and a gruff-voiced singer who worked on railway maintenance. What happened over the next year or so wasn’t pretty but we managed to put together enough material for a couple of hours-worth of gig and went and played in local pubs and clubs. There was nothing I can imagine that would have brought the five of us together in the same place apart from music. We were from different professions, different social backgrounds and lived in different places.
I enjoyed playing in Rude Mood. Blues is not difficult to play, although it is very difficult to make yourself stand out from other bands playing in the same genre. The band taught me to play with other musicians but more importantly it taught me to deal with the non-musical side of running band. Effectively it taught me the music business rather than the music business. We got stiffed by pub landlords, had gear and PA problems, lost our rehearsal space and all the other things that happen to bands. It wasn’t exactly Spinal Tap but you could see where it came from.
Inevitably Rude Mood broke up, or more likely just ground to a halt. I can’t even really remember why. I vaguely remember that the singer decided that he wanted to earn some money from being able to sing. I think it unlikely that he ever did. Unless you’re in a decent party or wedding band then you’re lucky if you take away enough to cover your fuel and drinks money and have a few quid left over. But earning money isn’t generally why people play in pub bands. Most musicians would actually pay to play.
The next band I was in was very different. By that time I had actually moved to Ashton-under-Lyne and there was a vibrant local music scene there. It was based around The Witchwood and an excellent local promoter called Darren Poyzer. Ashton was very close to Hyde and Oldham which also had decent places to play. I joined this band through a call from my friend Mick, the reggae-loving drummer in Rude Mood. He had joined an indie band with teh dreadful name of “John the Milkman” and their guitarist had just left. This band wrote and played their own songs so this was a new departure for me.
Stepping into another guitarists shoes is always a daunting prospect. Guitarists are notoriously bitchy. There’s a light bulb joke that goes:
“How many guitarists does it take to change a light-bulb?”
“Just one, but another twenty stand around saying how much better they could have done it.”
We started off playing a few covers and meanwhile I had to learn the songs that the band had written. To be honest, they weren’t my cup of tea. Minor-key shoe-gazing indie rock is probably the best way to describe it. My playing is blues-based and because I had played a Telecaster for so long, which is quite a thin-sounding guitar with little sustain, I had developed a busy style to fill up the sound of a one-guitar band. In this kind of music, although I could play it, my style wasn’t cutting it.
Through one of Mick’s previous bands we knew another guitarist, Adie, who had a very unassuming style. It was strange but you couldn’t always hear what he was playing but when he stopped it left a real hole in the sound. It was a pretty good fit and the band really gelled. Adie and I agreed to join on the condition that the of the band was name was changed! Again, the guys in the band would almost certainly never have met or socialised each other outside of this environment. We had an IT guy, a carpenter, a engineer, an aerospace designer and an electrician. It was almost six months that I even knew all the other guys’ surnames!
That band changed personnel a few times, bringing in an office clerk and an airport check-in manager. We wrote songs together, gigged across the north-west of England, played clubs, pubs, weddings and even a secure unit at a psychiatric ward somewhere in Tameside as a favour to a fan of the band who worked there and who thought it would be good for the inmates. It was certainly the weirdest gig I’ve ever played. Eventually the band took a sabbatical around 2000. At that point the amount of travelling in my job had escalated to the extent I was flying all over the place and driving 30,000 miles a year. My customers were all over the country and training courses took place all over the world and the nature of the job meant that I often didn’t know when I was going to be at home or in a hotel hundreds of miles away. That kind of activity isn’t conducive to keeping a band together as rehearsals and gigs would have had to be cancelled at the last minute meaning pissed off punters, booking agents, venues and especially bandmates. I had to move on and the core of that band is still going and playing locally, going by the name of “Jack”.
For the next ten years I did the same job and missed playing in a band dreadfully. I only played the guitar at home in the living room. However, recently a different role at work has meant a more stable timetable and I started playing at an open mic night in a local pub. I’m not what anyone would call an accomplished singer but I can hit a note. Through meeting musicians at those evenings I heard of a local band that was looking for a couple of guitarists and myself and one of the regulars at the open mic night auditioned and were asked to join. This is a covers band called “The Vyperz” who’ll be playing in the local area sometime in the new year of 2012. Again it is a disparate group of individuals: a handyman, an events manager, a former civil servant and a security guard.
The odd thing about all of these bands is that, even now, I feel closer to these guys than many of my colleagues at work, even after a twenty year gap. Playing in a band is such a binding experience that it brings people together more closely than almost any activity in my experience. Possibly team sport is one other thing that might give that level of closeness. I can imagine a four-man rowing crew or a bob-sleigh team feeling the same thing. the closeness that the shared experience of understanding the planning, creating and then delivering that goes into producing a specific goal whether it be participating in a competition or performing songs that no-one else in the world has ever heard. There’s a shared terror of appearing in front of other people; willing yourself not to screw up and let the others down and absolute joy when it goes well and you produce something special that you will remember for the rest of your life.
JTM (my band of 1995 to 2000. Includes recordings)
Jack on Facebook (the descendant of JTM)
Jack on MySpace (includes tracks)
Darren Poyzer (booking agent, musician, performer, raconteur)
The Witchwood (legendary East-Manchester music venue)
The Vyperz (YouTube channel. Includes videos of some rehearsals)