Thursday, May 22, 2008

Old money from an old lady

We (myself and Stuart the guitar repairman) usually do our string-change-and-anything-else that-needs-doing session at the Dominion Theatre on Thursday morning, but this week is different- it's 6 years since the first 'We Will Rock You' show so we're doing our bit a day early this week. Queen guitarist Brian May's playing at the show, script writer Ben Elton's making an appearance and there's an after show party for the cast and crew. With a long day in prospect what better way to prepare for it than by spending much of the previous evening ranting and raving- and yes, drinking- with East. Ooh he was annoyed. Ooh I was annoyed. I've completely forgotten what we were annoyed about but we were definitely annoyed. Isn't drinking brilliant? Sometimes...
Arriving at the Starbucks coffee shop near the Dominion stage door on New Oxford Street at sometime around 9.30 a.m. I reached the conclusion that I actually didn't have a bad hangover; no, I had a very bad hangover, in fact I think I'd sobered up somewhere on the Metropolitan Line and now was ready to go back to sleep thank you very much. Stuart didn't find this funny at all- he found it absolutely hilarious, and with hindsight I think it probably was, 'though as I ploughed my way through a 'Rise and Shine' muffin (really!) and a bucket of coffee feeling as though there was an air raid taking place just behind my eyes I was finding it tricky if not impossible to find anything remotely amusing about it. Oh well- only myself (and East) to blame I suppose.
At the theatre there's an air of frenzy- they've cleaned the floors, hoovered the carpets and they've even re-lacquered the stage. Have I got this wrong- it is the Queen guitarist that's coming isn't it and not the actual Queen? We do our bit as quickly as we can- the coffee's wearing off and we've got work to do elsewhere...

By 12.30 we're on our way to the Prince of Wales theatre where Stu's got to check over the guitars for the Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons musical 'The Jersey Boys'. We'd made a quick visit there last week and neither of us could quite believe how bad a state the instruments were in- broken strings, bits missing, you name it and it had gone wrong. Well, that's the ones that the musicians were using- the prop guitars used in the show (not actually played by anyone, just taken on stage by the actors playing the band members) were all in excellent condition. Very strange. We patch a couple of them up and Stu arranges to return without me on Friday (I'm away gigging) to do the bulk of the work. From there it's time for a pit stop at The Pillars of Hercules (just a soda water and lime for me thank you) before dropping into Chris Bryant's Guitars at the top of Denmark Street- Chris and Stu are old friends- then returning to the theatre for the afternoon rehearsal.

There's a car parked near the stage door- it's about the same size as a spaceship. Brian's here then... and indeed he is. I'd never met him before but he seemed to be a very nice chap, taller than me- maybe 6' 4" or even 6' 6" including the famous hair- and very friendly. He shook hands with me (his hands are huge!) and thanked me for my help on the show which was a nice touch- I always think that someone in his position must meet so many people so it's nice when they take a bit of time out to talk to you. I also met his guitar tech Pete who was standing guard over the famous guitar- you know the one and you know the story, Brian made it out of an old fireplace with his Dad's help, it's often referred to as 'The Red Special' 'though those in the know call it 'The Old Lady'. How do I know this? Easy- because that's what Stu called it as he asked Pete to let me have a look at it... now at this point I have to return to a subject that often crops up when I'm writing about working at the theatre- I don't actually like Queen. I never did. Still don't. This is suddenly quite an important point- if I had just met, for example, Steve Jones of The Sex Pistols and then been handed his White Les Paul to have a look at, I'd probably have been smiling so widely by now that the top of my head would have been close to coming off. This therefore wasn't as exciting as that might have been, but I was very aware of what, in electric guitar terms, this instrument represents to many thousands of people. It's got one of the biggest neck's that I've ever encountered on a guitar (remember what I said about his hands earlier?) and looks as though it needs a re-fret which is hardly surprising since it's around 40 years old and still has it's original ones. The tremolo arm really is a knitting needle, the fret markers on the fingerboard really are shirt buttons- the legend is true. There was a spare guitar sitting in the rack next to where this one had come from- it looked identical to me except for the sixpence (more about them in a minute...) that the 'real' one has fixed to the front of the headstock, the copy has 'Fryer' written there, it's made by Greg Fryer who also makes Brian's signature Treble Booster pedals (...and these) which are used by the guitarists in the show. As Stu remarked to me afterwards- 'how much is the original guitar worth then? A million? More?' Good question... there's a treble booster (an integral part of his sound) fixed onto the strap along with several old sixpences- famously May uses them instead of plectrums. Pete gave me one ('here, have one off the old lady') along with, confusingly, some Brian May plectrums ('I can't use the sixpence so I use these. One sold for 90 dollars on EBay last month'.) I might not be the biggest Queen fan in the world- but I keeping these!
Much of the afternoon was spent rehearsing 'Don't Stop Me Now'. In a 'normal' show this song gets cut short (I won't ruin the plot for anyone who might go in the future!) but it's being played with Brian on stage tonight so there's any number of things to check. It was very strange to watch such a well-known guitarist playing air guitar as the dancers worked out where he would be on stage in relation to them, unsurprisingly he seemed a bit awkward and looked pleased to finally get a guitar in his hands. Interestingly he used the copy guitar for the 'unplugged' run-through's ('he hates it!') and the original for the full rehearsals. Ben Elton arrived halfway through one of the run-through's with a few script changes- the actors seemed to pick up on them instantly. The song ends with Brian disappearing into the stage on a trapdoor to the applause of the 20 or so people watching, which if you think about must be the smallest audience he's played to in years. I got introduced to Ben Elton who seemed alright but a bit pre-occupied- it turned out that Brian was buying everyone pizza and he wondered where they were going to be served.

No pizza for Stu and myself though- we're off to The Shaftesbury Theatre where guitarist Adam Goldsmith had a problem. He's got a new Music Man Steve Lukather signature model electric guitar and is not behaving itself, he's been on the phone to Stu about it and he's bringing it in for 6.30 so we're meeting him at the theatre. There's time for a drink (there's always time for a drink, and besides I'm feeling better now!) in The Angel before meeting Adam, signing in and heading to the orchestra pit. The guitar's buzzing and playing badly- Stu works his magic and everything's ok, and we'd better get going if we're going to get back to The Dominion for the start of the show. Stu look's at me, I look at him.... 'I think we're all theatre'd out' says he; 'The football's on the telly' say I- and, telling myself that we're striking a blow for punk rock in the process, we head down into Tottenham Court Road tube station. It'd been a very long day, and I've just remembered that, even though their guitarist seems to be a very nice chap, I still don't actually like Queen.

We should have stayed- I've just found out that, in true Spinal Tap tradition, the trapdoor got stuck!!!

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