Monday, April 09, 2012

Marshall arts

Jim Marshall, 'The Father Of Loud' (well, of Marshall amplifiers anyway) has died aged 88. I met him once, at a trade show - he could regularly be seen at such events, sitting behind a table with a mountain of soon-to-be autographed posters, shaking hands and exchanging a few words with people like me; I got an autographed poster, shook hands and exchanged a few words. He seemed like a nice enough chap, if somewhat detached from the event although he'd obviously seen it all before on any number of occasions. The contribution made by Marshall to the sound of the electric guitar (and therefore the sound of rock music in general) is almost impossible to quantify; it's hard to imagine the average or indeed above-average heavy rock guitarist without a wall of Marshall amps and cabinets behind them. And would Jimi Hendrix have got that sound without them? Probably not. And then there's the 'Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton' album - the images of E.C. with a Les Paul on his lap and a Marshall combo in the background have become so iconic that the combo is now simply known as a 'Bluesbreaker' in honour of the monumental sound created by Clapton on the album. And that's only a couple of examples, and there are many many more. Thanks for doing it all Dr. Jim - it really wouldn't have been the same without you.

I wrote the above paragraph and indeed am writing these very words on the 5.10 am Metropolitan Line train going into London. Have you ever tried to write anything while you're on a tube train? It's not easy is it? Reading the Marshall stuff back it's a peculiar mixture of seemingly random hieroglyphics (I guess that'll be where the train was moving) and my usual handwriting (from the oasis of calm where we were stopped at a station) which is pretty rough at the best of times. It all just about makes sense although the words 'just about' are very important in this sentence - maybe writing on trains isn't such a good idea after all... but it's been a while since I've been up this early to travel to a gig, and I'd all but forgotten how nice (for want of a better word) it is when you're out and about at this time of day. As I stumbled towards the ticket hall at Uxbridge Station it was dark (obviously!) cold-ish and quiet. The Plough could be clearly seen overhead (I can never quite work out where The North Star is, can you?) and despite the early hour it's very hard not to feel good about things.
I'm on my way to the Eurostar terminal at Kings Cross St. Pancras where I'm due to meet up with Sam and Eddie from Department S; from there we're off to Belgium (meeting Mike on the way and Stuart at the other end) for an appearance at The Rewind Festival in Ghent. In the interim period since the previous weekend's rehearsal I'd had precious little time to review and run through the material, aside from playing along with it all on Wednesday and treating the shop customers to regular airings of it on an iPod. I was a little concerned that I hadn't done enough work, although there was obviously no point in worrying about that now. Instead I find myself musing on the unlikeliness of the situation; I bought their singles all those years ago, have a dim recollection of playing 'Is Vic There?' in a band once (maybe at a gig, maybe at a rehearsal?) and I now find myself on my way to playing a gig with them. And if that wasn't a strange enough thought, I'm playing bass guitar. Curiouser and curiouser.
The band's changed a bit since I bought those singles - original members Mike and Stuart are still there on guitar and drums respectively but Vaughn Toulouse (original vocalist and owner of one of the great stage names of all time!) is sadly no longer with us so his place is taken by Eddie the original keyboard player; his replacement Mark now plays bass (I'm depping for him - keep up at the back there!) and former Back to Zero and Rubella Ballet guitarist Sam Burnett is the newest member of the band. I occasionally muse in these hallowed pages about how lucky I feel to be doing what I do with the likes of Ruts DC and TV Smith, but playing bass for Department S - now there's something that I'd never have never have predicted in a million years.
'Well I'd never have predicted this in a million years' I thought to myself as the lights of Northwick Park Hospital went by in the middle distance and the chap in the seat in front of me ate what I think was a biscuit. What had began as an all-but-empty train when it left Uxbridge had been gradually filling up as I scribbled, as I suppose the first train of the day always does. I wonder where all these people are going at this time on Good Friday morning?

After meeting up with Sam and Eddie we made our way to Eurostar security - much like an airport - before moving through to the chaos of passport control. I'm not sure what was causing the problem but there were clearly too many people trying to get through, with members of staff shouting things like 'any more for the 6.50 to Brussels' inciting near panic among the assembled multitude. We made it to our seats with less that two minutes to spare - I wonder how many others weren't as lucky.
With Mike joining the train at Ebbsfleet the rest of the journey went smoothly if a little blearily from my point of view. At Brussels we caught the train for Ghent (a bewildering amount of bicycles parked outside the station!) where we met up with Kika (who's worked with the band in Belgium before) who took us to the Hotel Ibis where we met up with Stuart, checked in and then set out in search of food. After walking around town for a while (and a very nice town it is too) we settled on the Ankara Turkish restaurant - as our meals arrived my phone rang meaning that I found myself saying 'well you won't believe this but I'm in a Turkish restaurant in Belgium' much to the amusement of all concerned.
With the venue just a few minutes walk from our hotel it was time for a shower and to catch up with a bit of sleep. At around 4.50 I set out for The Concertzall; within five minutes I was back in my room picking up some plectrums (I'm not sure I was as awake as I might have been!) meaning I arrived at the venue a few minutes late for our 5 o'clock meeting. Our expected soundcheck didn't materialise, but we did get to look over the gear - a new looking drumkit for Stu, Vox AC30's for Mike and Sam and an Ampeg SVT stack (oh yes!) for me - and were told that we would have a soundcheck prior to our performance. Unfortunately this meant playing 'Monte Carlo Or Bust' to the audience that would be watching us a few minutes later; even more unfortunately Sam's guitar sounded crackly, like a lead was going wrong. He and a couple of the sound crew attempted to solve the problem with limited success, and suddenly we were starting our show with a somewhat chaotic 'Clap Now'. By 'Lucifer Sam' (there's one for you Syd Barrett fans!) things were sounding better and the audience were starting to get into it - or were they? It was all feeling a bit too much like hard work, and when I lost my way a bit in 'Cause' I was starting to get a bit annoyed with myself. Then with three songs left on the setlist we're told that there's only time for one more, and 'Is Vic There?' finally gets a reaction from the crowd. We're off the stage almost as soon as we've finished the song, everyone in the band is a bit disappointed with the show but we're told that we sounded good so perhaps we're just being over-critical. Ah well. After a couple of drinks backstage Kika takes Stuart to the airport (he flew out to meet us and is flying straight home to go to a wedding the next morning) and we take our guitars back to the hotel before walking back to the venue to watch some bands, have a few drinks, talk to other band members, talk to each other, have a drink or two, wonder what to do next... eventually Sam and myself head back to the hotel where I sit in the bar scribbling yet more blog notes, half-listening to a chap from Chesham trying to chat up the Russian barmaid and having a text message conversation with Stuart the guitar repairman who's watching The Uppercut at The Half Moon in Harrow - judging by his comments Pete is doing a good job in my place!

Saturday began around 8.45am with a shower and breakfast with Sam, Eddie and Kika with Mike yet to make it back to the hotel - this lead to much speculation as to where he was (I'll leave you to guess what it was about!) although when he arrived back the story was somewhat unexpected. He'd come back to the hotel but had been unable to get his doorkey to work and so had gone back to the venue and had ended up sleeping on someone's sofa. The strangest part of the story was not that he hadn't gone to reception and got a new key (although that is a bit strange if you think about it) but that he was sharing a room with Eddie who was adamant that no one had tried to open the door. So - who's door had Mike been trying to open?

We weren't due to leave for the train to Brussels for a couple of hours so there was time for a very enjoyable wander around town before collecting all our gear and setting out towards the station. 'It's only 10 minutes walk' said the cheery receptionist, who I've since decided likely to be representing Belgium in the 20Km walk at the upcoming Olympics. Our train journey was enlivened by Mike producing a copy of 'The Chap' magazine which is always a good read - by the end of our journey the views from the train windows had let us to propose 'The Pylon' magazine - 'for the electrical enthusiast in us all'. Well, you had to be there.

The Eurostar train journey took longer than it should have, with a long stay at Lille station being the main culprit. I walked through passport control at St. Pancras around 4.20pm which meant that I had around an hour-and-a-half until my next adventure...

On Thursday afternoon I'd had a phone call from Mike Hyde; he's Elwood in the Chicago Blues Brothers and he'd called to see if I was available for a just-come-in-at-short-notice playback gig on Saturday evening. Well, I would just about be back in time, although I'd be tired... oh, alright then!
I was home for long enough to get changed and for the long-suffering Shirley to hand me some crisps and sandwiches before the doorbell went - it was my new friend Luke, and within a couple of minutes we were on our way to The Slug And Lettuce in Solihull. Neil is joining Mike in the hat and glasses, and Luke is joining myself on guitar, meaning that it's the first time I can remember playing a Blues Brothers show with another guitarist. Our journey saw much guitar talk (the lad really knows his stuff!) as well as a few thoughts on how we were going to approach the show. When we arrived Mike and Neil were more-or-less set up and ready to go; Luke was using a Line6 amp and Bognor cabinet with a Fender Road Worn Stratocaster, I stuck with my Telecaster and Fender combo (not least because I haven't got any other types of amplifier!) and we soundchecked with 'Soul Man' before getting some drinks and talking through the set.
As we go on at 9.30 the place is full and people are still arriving - we play two sets to scenes of general mayhem with gangs of lads circling gangs of lasses and few if any of them being particularly bothered whether we were there or not. It was more fun than that description makes it sound (you might argue that it couldn't have been much less fun than I've just made it sound, but it wasn't that bad, honest!) and it was great to have a short notice gig rather than to not have been working. No, really it was, although Mike's comment as we were getting changed after the show ('right, we've been off 15 minutes, they'll have forgotten about us now so we can go and pack the gear away') more-or-less tells you all that you need to know.

And last night I had an absolutely splendid time on Music Scene Investigation - definitely the best show of the three that I've been involved with, and the music was of such a high standard that it was very hard to decide on the winning song. I'm back on the show on July 15th, and there's talk of there being a one hour special on your humble narrator in the meantime. A whole hour about me - that's about as likely as, well, me playing bass for Department S isn't it? Oh, hang on a minute...

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