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Thursday, 17 May 2012

The NME, a ferret, and the winner is ...

And so the NME awards have once more been with us, and, look, I don’t want to sound big-headed but in its heyday, Fibbers would have won this by a country mile. Founded around the same time as King Tuts and long before many of the (worthy) Leeds venues, it was flinging out anything up to thirty bands a week, packing people to the rafters as well as being jammed all day for food and coffee and generally loved by all and sundry. Except by folks that I refused (a) a job, (b) a gig or (c) a drink after time.

That said, it does raise small venue profiles for a short while and gets everybody excited and involved which is no bad thing.

Quite soon after opening two decades ago, the Fibbers name was being announced at award ceremonies for Publican Magazine's Freehouse Of The Year, York Tourism Bureau's Small Business Of The Year, a website award I can't remember the name of but it was worldwide (natch), as well as features in, yes, the NME, Q, a couple of red tops and even a slot on Yorkshire TV's Calendar where I was shown excitedly pushing around a hoover …

My ten minutes of fame, and humiliation, was featured in an end of year 'best of' compilation introduced by the brilliant Richard Whiteley whereupon I was sandwiched between the inevitable ferret incident replay, a sniggersome interview blooper involving an attractive blond at a beaver rescue centre, and that great story about a Bradford shopkeeper who sliced a tomato and saw the very image of Jesus. Personally, I suspect that our Lord will announce the Second Coming more conspicuously than appearing in a small, red steak garnish in West Yorkshire where far from leading us from evil, God's big sign could quite easily have been smothered in Morrison’s salad cream and lost forever.

I was never present at these award ceremonies, they just don't interest me and generally upon being informed of an impending gong I presumed there must have been some terrible mistake and they meant to invite a Jim Hornsby or Tim Hornsbiscuit or something.

Nope, I’ve always preferred to be at the coal face with the customers rather than waving a shiny piece of tin by the lug. So consequently, somebody from a swish London ceremony at The Grosvenor rang us one rainy midweek winter night trying to explain over the racket of a Battle Of The Bands heat that we were triumphant. On other occasions, a reporter would drop off said silverware to the office where if it wasn’t immediately press-ganged in to service as an ashtray or sandwich crust holder it would loll Tesco-bagged underneath my desk in a permanent sulk.

I relate this stuff not to show how clever we were, but more in complete bewilderment. How could anybody with any sense, considered judgement or exposure to public ridicule when proven wrong (as I was always thinking they would be) possibly think we were doing something special. Did they have the wrong place? I mean, a lot of the time we were on our knees in the bank and reversing out bowing ("Oh thank you thank you thank you for honouring that £24 cheque to the milkman")

Although proper respect should go to our first bank manager Steve from The Royal Bank Of Scotland, a shoulder length-haired saint whose persistence with our £10k unsecured overdraft flew square in the face of business wisdom and got him in to trouble on more than a few occasions. You just can't imagine that happening these days and was maybe one more example of serendipity or just God saying, "Cheeky bastards, oh go on then".

Y'see, nobody had ever really come across a venue that was open all day, had a genuine cappuccino machine, real ales, a commitment to good service, and food of such a standard that it attracted restaurant reviewers. And a piano sawn in half fitted either side of a supporting pillar. And a stinking coffin propped up n the corner. And a big red telephone box. And a petrol pump.

And in 1992, there was no such thing as Starbucks, Costa, Pret, Nero and the like. People were divided, and those that didn't stare open-mouthed in wonder like a child seeing fairies in the nursery used to return their coffee to the bar and complain about the froth, "What's all that crap on the top etc etc". And worse ...

A menu with fajitas? Fadge. It. Arse. Its a difficult sell pronounced like that. And what the heck are they when they're at home? All those little pots of guacamole ("Is it made from REAL mole? I'm a vegetarian"), sour cream ("Excuse me, my wife's just been sick. This cream is OFF!"), and salsa ("Not eating that foreign muck" and "That's a bloody dago dance, mate") dutifully trailed out to fascinated, and by turn horrified, music lovers. They all got the idea eventually of course and now it's second nature to roll your own although it meant something different then.

We thought that a live music venue should major on good service, a willingness to accommodate the customer. Somewhere that didn't use the excuse of being rock 'n' roll for not cleaning every day, always having great food and coffee available and a bunch of smiley staff who didn't look they were in a Guns 'n' Roses tribute band or in between mortician jobs.

And of course these days with the Internet looming over our every twitch and sneeze, it's easier than ever to canvass support. It's only a different version of "Please LIKE me". I almost miss the days of C60s dropping through the letterbox, often accompanied by complex and boring CVs, posed 'press' shots with forlorn attempts at being interesting like posing with a confused creature of the wild, manhandled from slumber in the name of indie.

Yes, amongst the shaggy dogs and sullen cats I've seen frogs, fornicating lions, a deeply embarrassed pig and even a badger roped in to convince me that the next musical revolution was about to burst forth. And I was going to miss it if I wasn’t careful. Careful dodging the crap more like. In reality of course I had to be more careful I didn’t soil myself with laughter.

It's a doddle these days to bore the pants off your press-ganged readership (you're reading this, aren't you?) by stockpiling email addresses and spamming the backside out of it. Back then, I sat with my young daughters threatened in to folding a couple of thousand A4 sheets in to separate envelopes, all of which had to be licked, addressed and stamped. And then lumped to the post office. Two thousand stamps, as well. Do the math. It was a bit more expensive than hitting send.

Unbelievable as it seems now, the monthly listings poster was made by hand. Typewriters, remember them? I would one-finger the gig listings, painstakingly scissor out each line and Pritt Stick them over an iconic photo. Back then, rite-of-passage takeaway Yummy Chicken just up the road was a computer shop of sorts with a photocopier, and my replication needs probably paid the rent. Often, a great show would come in last minute and the event had to be once more typed out, enlarged and then glued in. Very Jamie Reed. 

I still have the entire collection many of which were embellished by last minute sloganeering like "No shit beer, no shit bands, no shit heads" (which we turned in to a t-shirt) and other artily self-flagellating strap lines like 'proper froffy coffee' and 'chip butties made with squidgy bread!'.

It all seems so quaint now but to my huge surprise and gratitude all this desperate make-do and off-the-cuff 'oh bollocks it will have to do' increasingly endeared us to a live music populus wondering what the hell nonsense we were going to come up with next as on a daily basis I reinvented and refined the genres 'rank amateur', 'innocent abroad', 'rabbit in the headlights' and 'fucking nutter'.

As I write this even now the excitement comes flooding back although it's no use pretending we had a mission to innovate and amaze. It was more a case of getting past the direct debits than leaping the vaulting horse of style.

We built relationships with people, sometimes the oddest and mostly not your usual live music crowd. One such was Maggie, a retired royal family nanny who, in a hushed and conspiratorial Scottish burr, would regale us with life's truisms and pratfalls whilst slinging back four or five double Tia Marias and fatally wounding a twenty of Embassy Regal.

Maggie lived in the terrace of houses to the rear of the venue, where the entire pensioner population was deaf as a post but still managed to complain about the noise. On a daily basis, Maggie used to 'sort them out' for us, before visiting another half dozen hostelries and depleting their stocks of Tia Maria, Cointreau and Drambuie. Our intrepid highlander had scant regard for her own safety, or maybe she was just too pissed, and, pushing one of those green tartan canvas shopping trolleys that ONLY little old ladies have, would launch herself across the busy street regardless of hurtling buses and formula one taxis. Above the din of a soundcheck, you could hear the screeching of tyres and muffled cursing, "Ah yes" we would say, "Maggie's crossing the road".

The final Maggie twist concerned her son who owned/ran a huge and successful delivery company. A larger-than-life character and typical Yorkshireman, burly and altogether suited to the cut and thrust of parcel post, he suddenly left his family, upped sticks and became a folk singer in New York. I miss Maggie. We all do.

I think its important to be yourself, but staying true to your heart often means falling out with people. Sometimes its short term when they’re drunk, sometimes its long term like the Welsh bloke who clicked his fingers at me, or the several who took a swing (and sometimes connected), or the serial vomiters, minesweepers, moaners and even the bloke who used his pint to rinse peanuts from his teeth and then spat it all back in the glass (GET OUT!), and the chap who I chased around the corner and up the steps with a glass ashtray. I’d been to the races all day, and that was my excuse.

Back to the present and it’s been a bit of a rock year so far, and one gig in particular brought out a lot of familiar faces. One chap in particular, a transvestite, I hadn’t seen for many years. A father, he was in a relationship last time I checked, and a lovely man all round. Apart from that fuss at the RSPCA with an axe, that is, but he’s served his time and fair do’s. Let’s call him Pete …

Fibbers has always been somewhere where folks can express themselves, for want of a better phrase. Somewhere to feel comfortable having raided the dressing-up box, and look like you want to look. And even if you don’t look like anybody else, it doesn’t matter. And so it is with Pete.

Apologies in advance to our cross-dressing friends, but without great care and a lot of practice in front of the mirror, some of the ‘chaps’ come across a bit, shall we say, blousey. More Dick Emery than Burt Reynolds.

On one occasion many years ago Pete came to a show at Fibbers as usual fully kitted out in the little black dress and accessories. After a night on the Newcastle Brown, our man returned home to his terrace house, one of those where you walk through the front door and you’re immediately on top of the telly and the teak nest of tables.

Ruffling in his matching handbag, our intrepid man-bird was unable to find the front door key but, being a slightly built chap and in an alcoholic spin, the catflap obviously looked like something that would easily accommodate an eight stone male.

Tossing the handbag through first, and with shoulders pushed back and that little black dress tucked in to his pants, our hero squeezed a slim upper half through the gap but became firmly stuck at the hips, displaying for all to see a pair of spindly and hairy stocking-and-suspender legs poking half way across the pavement.

Fortunately the milkman was passing by four hours later and pulled him out, long after Pete had finished thrashing and was now snoring loudly without shame. I always think it fortunate that despite being in such a vulnerable position he wasn’t rogered by a passing Arab.

We recently entertained a girl, well sort of, group of 70s vintage. Largely playing to middle-aged men with cameras and rose-tinted specs, the ladies served up an hour of gonzo rock. Like malevolent Mrs Tiggywinkles with your granny on drums spilling over the stool and a bass player with a preceding reputation she lived up to. Come on love, its all bollocks, we’re all real people just doing a job. Save the attitude for the stage.

Bands just talk bollocks though, don’t they?

Not as much as PR companies, however, and I’ve always been stunned by their sludgy prose not dissimilar to something you’d scoop from a u-bend, all tealeaves, baked beans, slivers of soap and the odd hair. And just as attractive.

“Fiendishly fermenting all the grisly girth of Oasis with the honey-sweetness of Katy B”. Yeah, honestly, somebody sent me that. A company that some musician had paid for directly or indirectly.

I get reams of tosh about the school playground in Swansea where Jim and John met, “cementing what has now become a writing partnership destined to eclipse even McCartney and Lenin”. Yes … Lenin.

“Grandiose Toothbrush are now ready to take on the world! … Check out the band pics here!!” I’m thinking why is there a dartboard behind the drummer’s head.

But it’s like that when you’re booking. First the enthusiastic deal closure, the excitement at the confirmation and readying the show for announcement to the world. Getting the right pic is often the most difficult part; the band preferring that out of focus arty shot in front of their favourite monolith. You, of course, manage to use the one with the previous drummer and last month’s haircuts – to wails of disapproval.

And then, of course, the band want to pick the supports. Now, this is fine when you’re selling the place out. I really don’t care. But when the show is struggling and you want your mates from Aberdare, and me to pay them £50, it’s a no.

The show is then announced to a great trumpeting except that the news has already been leaked by the band four days ago. You’re not allowed to ‘go on sale’ so that an ‘approved’ ticket site can take some of the sales first.

And this is crackers because in any business your best chance of a sale is that first instinct, “Wow, my favourite band are playing. Gotta buy a ticket, now!” Oh no, you can’t. You may have to wait three days, and then be directed to a ticket site you’ve never used before, and another database your credit card details are added to. For most people the moment has gone.

Yes, in the music business we truly are divorced from reality.

Meanwhile, a day later back in the office and you eagerly dial in the username and password to your ticket sales database. And then the slightly cocked head at first day sales of zero, then the sinking feeling as the pit of your stomach lands in your socks when no bugger has bought a ticket all week.

Then the poring through all the band’s media, yes you’re sure they’ve missed it off a vital listing somewhere. Yes, that’s it of course, the band themselves haven’t told anybody!

Oh but they have and we’re in to week three of zero sales. Now what. Get a good pulling local on board of course! Ah, but the agent has said no locals.  Why?

And then the saddest move of all ... put it on Groupon.

But wait, of course!  Get it in the NME - but wasn't that where we all came in?

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