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Thursday, 3 November 2011

Lutes, leeches, a milkman and a Mars bar ...

So … it was big rock star time again at Fibbers this week. 

It’s not that the Americans are needy it’s just that they’re well, yes, needy. 

“Hey dude, these really need to be sugar free”

“Are you saying you only have sixteen bath towels? But there are FIVE of us, man”

“We soundcheck real quick and totally super rapid, buddy, but can you hold the doors for another forty minutes, the bass player can’t hear the cowbell in his monitor, my friend”

“We’re totally cool and low maintenance but, dude, this ice ain’t cold enough and do you have Lite beer instead?” … LITE beer?  Have you looked at your population recently?

Much of how your day will go generally revolves around the tour manager and his demeanour.  A laid back and experienced guy/girl generally means a relaxed day, the focus being on delivering the best possible performance with the least stress.  Immediate acceptance that (a) only fifty folks have bought tickets and (b) this isn’t Wembley can be really helpful so we don’t have to argue about the drummer’s champagne bath.

Of course, the experience can be fairly horrible, revolving around a ‘difficult’ band member (sometimes the whole band, miffed at a change in fortunes perhaps) and the day starts and ends badly, as all and sundry skate on thin ice to avoid upsetting the one(s) with the delicate disposition, “Sorry, man.  He just doesn’t like touring”. Then why is he in a band.  Join a sect.  Live in a lighthouse.

I was reminded of another iconic guitarist I promoted at York’s Grand Opera House in 2000.  Our hero kept the pixie hat but was now in full Blackadder mode and, with his beautiful American wife, now churning out full blown mediaeval mush.  Sample lyric, “Summer is coming, loud singeth the cuckoo” and other sundry keenings about maypoles, swains, bringing in the sheaves and shagging in the woods (oh come on, that’s what it was all REALLY about).

Anyhow, that evening backstage there were to be no purple flowers or even the merest hint of magenta or violet.  Even mention of the word was strictly forbidden.  The very wonderful Angie Gordon (money and music genius, and our bedrock for so long) was repping the show (and doing the support slot as well) so someone reprogrammed her ring tone to Smoke On The Water and called her at every opportunity when she was in the great man’s presence.  Small things amuse, yes small things.

At the time we had The Golden Fleece as well, a 500-yr old city centre pub complete with slanted floors, wobbly walls, ghosts, the lot.  Our manager there was a ghostly presence as well but that’s another story.  We decked out the function room in holly and ivy and laid out a mediaeval banquet complete with pewter goblets and even somebody tootling away in the background.  And then our man whipped out a lute instead of a Stratocaster, and, boyhood dreams shattered, I nearly slipped hemlock in the mead.

My problem is, y’see, I have an intolerance of the plainly ridiculous and a highly developed sense of injustice. I can keep my trap shut for a while, even lurk in the background trying to stay out of trouble, but, sooner or later, I just have to come out with it.  I’m rubbish in polite company, I’ve walked out of lucrative positions simply because someone spoke to me very badly, and I’m the last person a band should ask for an opinion.  Or am I?  Isn’t truth a good thing?

Many is the message, with links attached, “Please let us know what you think!”  I’ll do my best to find positives, and wish them well but, when pressed rudely with the inevitable demand for a gig (‘Cos we’re the dogs bollocks”) it all comes spilling out.  Calling a spade a Spear & Jackson does have it’s positives, though, and it’s nice when a band asks me knowing they will always get an honest answer.  Yes, truth, it’s a good thing.

It’s not easy booking gigs at the moment.  Breaking bands aren’t breaking, and with a general disillusionment the public just aren’t getting excited.  They’re not stupid, they can smell rats.

One of my best industry and personal chums advised strongly about the following skit but if you’re in the industry and think it applies to you I hope you take it in the spirit intended.  It’s that truth thing again …

Good morning Mr Sweet Shop Owner, my usual Mars Bar please!

Aaah … sorry, mate.  Someone else bought it.  He’s seen you buying them for years and likes the idea  so I sold it to him instead.  Oh, and he gave me more money.

Hang on a minute, I’ve been buying a Mars Bar off you since you opened.  You were skint and desperate for my business.  You even used to ring up and tell me about new products.  Even ask when I was coming in.

Things change, man.  My sweet shop is bigger, I don’t really need you anymore.  Was there anything else?

Er …well, I suppose I’d better have that Crunchie instead.  I can’t go a day without anything sweet.

            It’s yours, no problem.  And that’ll be extra for the Makeweight Bar that goes with it.

Why do I have to have one of those as well?

            Part of the deal. No Makeweight Bar, no Crunchie.

Bloody hell. I want the Crunchie so I suppose so.  What’s a Makeweight Bar when it’s at home, anyway?

A delicious blend of crunchy biscuit, beetroot, lemon curd and oregano.  Y’know, the stuff they put on pizzas.  It’s had a great review.  I think they wrote it themselves.  Nobody’s buying ‘em.

Not surprised, they sound terrible.

Yeah, but they’re covered in creamy milk chocolate in a nice wrapper.  Oh, and you have to eat it when I say so, by the way.  It’s in this contract you have to sign.  Hope that’s OK.

<<sigh>> Whatever … There’s your money.  Can I go now?

            In a minute, I just need a contribution towards my new sign outside.

Whaaat?  Shouldn’t you be paying for that?

Yeah, but business hasn’t been great recently what with the recession, so anybody that buys a Crunchie has to give me a bit towards advertising my business.  No advertising contribution, no Crunchie.  So do you wanna buy or shall I give them to somebody else?

You’ve turned me over there mate but you’re the only shop so I suppose that’s that.

            Correct. NEXT!!

There are people, the powerful as well as the new, in big buildings who, like you, will want to play their part putting on great gigs.  Seeing and signing lots of new bands, putting their money and trust in new talent, and always networking, always building and always bringing you good opportunities.  These are the people who the industry should cherish.  Thankfully, they are in the majority.

But you also come across the hangers-on, the leeches, the empire builders, the motormouths and chancers. Many of them in high places, and more waiting to sit there themselves.  Waiting for that big band, that big break.  There are some who only have the one band.  And this, they think, makes them clever.  It doesn’t. 

[It is at this point my proof reader has blue pencilled an entire paragraph, so you’ll have to wait for the book]

… and, in truth, there IS so much enjoyment to be had booking bands in to small venues.  It’s the pleasure on people’s faces, it’s the happiness of musicians after a good gig.  It’s the reason you started doing this in the first place.  So you wanna be a promoter? In a small venue? Don’t be silly.  It’s absolutely the wrong time, get a day job and come back in a year. 

Rant over … on with Fibbers and it’s 1996.

It was a year when, being very much a community venue, we did lots of private parties including, unbelievably, weddings.  I recall our milkman and his new bride having their reception one Saturday afternoon late in June and, making polite conversation, I asked him how he met his wife.  Adjusting his carnation he raised an eyebrow, “Tim. I’m a milkman”.  He must still be a milkman because I saw him only the other day and he’s remarried again.

You just have to be flattered when somebody picks your grotty live music venue for the biggest day of their life.  About as far removed from your local Best Western function room as Frankie Cocozza is from music, Fibbers had furniture not to die for but die on; a floor like the surface of the moon where beautiful trailing wedding dresses soon had splinters; the décor was as if the blind school had wallpapered a squat; and when the temperature rose to 90F as it often did, the walls would run with perspiration making beautifully made-up brides and birthday girls look like Chucky’s sister.  Ventilation and/or air circulation was the front door, open or shut.  Good job the food/staff/music/ale was good and, of course, we wanted the business so we were cheap.

Several 40th celebrations picked up the weekday slack and also a 21st with a lovely girl from York Uni.  She paid for a huge buffet, a band and a DJ and nobody turned up.  I was very sad for her and I expect she’s still scarred to this day.  On another occasion we were hired for a 50th and our semi-centenarian strutted about like Mussolini giving orders instead of partying, until the band invited him on stage for a chorus of Happy Birthday but played Ivor Biggun’s ‘I’m A ****er’ instead.

I continued booking the weird and wonderful.  From New Jersey’s Lizard Music to Glasgow’s Hugh Reed And The Velvet Underpants; Brighton’s David Devant And His Spirit Wife were fab (I think they’re still going?) and Joey Ramone’s brother played with his band Stop; the fabulous Wedding Present (for me, David Gedge is up there with Mark E Smith) did a last-minute warm-up with Cable; celtic progsters Iona (great band but I’m not a fan of ancient worlds, flowing rivers and lands being cleansed) filled the venue two nights in a row; The Glitter Band made an appearance but it wasn’t an all ages show; there were punks galore with Captain Sensible, X-Ray Spex, UK Subs and John Cooper-Clarke (“I’m very lazy and eat two thirds of a Mars Bar so I just rest and play”); Hazel O’Connor (still on the go and at Fibbs last weekend) and TV Smith looking through Gary Gilmore’s eyes. 

Mark Manning (Zodiac Mindwarp) appeared with Bill Drummond (who sensationally burnt a million quid in a Jura cottage only a couple of years earlier – YouTube it, creepy) reading from a huge wooden lectern.  Glenn Tilbrook was just starting his solo jaunts and played for nearly three hours, pulling people on stage to sing (or not!) along.  We encouraged local singer-songwriter Marc Atkinson to bring his guitar and he jumped on stage and duetted with Glenn on Weather With You.  Great stuff.

In fact, such was my enthusiasm and love for booking bands that I would book anything and do my damndest to make it a success.  U-Mniegit, remember them?  No, I don’t either.  Mansun were huge at the time and their 1996 show was bookended by The Hideaway Blues Band and two brilliant Scottish folk musicians Aly Bain & Phil Cunningham.  More used to theatres they were horrified to arrive at our dungeon but admitted to having their best gig for years amongst the mismatched matchstick furniture, a spluttering cappuccino machine and a front door that blew open with the slightest breeze or bus whooshing past. 

Feeder played the night after Phil Bates and Mick Kaminsky from ELO, Rock Bitch (see June 23 blog entry!) rubbed shoulders with the heavenly, literally, Martyn Joseph but whither now Space Monkeys, Northside, These Animal Men, The Frank Chickens, Delgados, Showgirls, Smaller, Harvey’s Rabbit, Dreamgrinder, Crazy Gods Of Endless Noise and my least favourite bunch of ‘musicians’ of all time The N*b***s.  Why?  You’ll have to wait.

It was also the year of Nowaysis whose fee increased from £200 to £1000 in a fortnight until I finally squeaked.  Kula Shaker played their first of several shows on a Sunday night after playing The White Room (a kind of precursor to Jools) on the Saturday.  John Martyn and a band including Gerry Underwood held a full house in complete thrall and I swear people levitated when he played Over The Rainbow.  At the time Martyn was painted as a monster, a drunk you couldn’t cross and ‘difficult’.  He was nothing of the sort but he was a bloody big bloke I wouldn’t have messed with and he filled the back door when he arrived.

One band who shall remain nameless (they’re still going) refused to play a full set as they were only getting £50.  Well why agree to the bloody gig then! What’s the point of punishing your fans?  I didn’t understand then and I don’t understand now.

And I’ve just realised I started this entry with a rant and ended with one …

Coming up: How we got five agents, four record companies and three A&R reps to come to Fibbers one afternoon and still nobody brought a demo tape; the guitarist who played through seven amps at once and thought he wasn’t quite loud enough; and the guitar tech who quite literally threw an amp at the audience. Still plugged in.

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