Working Class Love Songs from the Moseley Border
Our next gig was a bit different. Ash and I, at the Arts Centre, playing acoustically. There were a few other bands on, but at least we didn’t have to suffer going on first. How we’d managed that, I don’t know. The idea of doing an acoustic set was influenced in part by the Jesus & Mary Chain’s recent Peel Session which had us all, me particularly, exclaiming, “Fucking hell. They’ve got tunes!” We had no reason to practice acoustically at Reeman’s, so, for a week or so, we’d wait until my Mom had gone to bed and play in my living room. Ashley’s tape recorder was set up on top of the TV, so we could play back what we’d done and scrutinize what worked and what didn’t, which lead guitar parts complimented what I was doing, how good my voice was sounding. We were justifiably confident, particularly with the way we’d worked a version of The Walker Brothers’ “In My Room”. This gig was going to be our way of showing the good folk of Tamworth that we weren’t a chaotic mess, that our songs held up when taking the severity of an acoustic test.
We should have guessed, ten seconds into the soundcheck, that things weren’t going to go quite as planned. I’d asked to have my guitar mic-ed and no problems there. Ash, however, has his new Takamine electro-acoustic and has asked the sound guy for it to be plugged straight into the P.A., with a bit of chorus and reverb for good measure. He is told to fuck off, to stand in the designated space and wait for instructions on where to stand, as a microphone is lobbed in front of him. This was not our last run-in with Denis and Gary Byfield.
I’d known Denis and Gary for a few years, but hadn’t had much to do with them since Anice, Gary’s sister, and I had started to drift apart as friends. I used to love going round their house to drink coffee, talk about music, watch videos (they were one of the few people I knew who actually had a video at the time) and dream of super-stardom. I watched Gary, over a few years, go from being a shy, awkward school-kid into the loud assistant of his Dad’s P.A. company. Dennis was always the “mad Dad,” full of jokes, slagging off all the music we liked, reactionary and opinionated. He hadn’t changed a bit.
We did a last rehearsal in the backstage area of the Arts Centre, finally running through these four songs we already knew off by heart. A state of mind somewhere between panic and confidence set in. Christ, we knew these songs were good, and it would take more than being jerked around by an amateurish P.A. company to stop that shining through. People are going to love us.
There must be a hundred plus in there tonight. Amongst the chattering and the P.A.’s backing tape, it’s hard for us to even tune up, so little can we hear. Trying to do this onstage, whilst people expect us to be playing, is probably a bit of a mistake. It takes us some ten or fifteen minutes and, by the time we’re finally ready, there are over a hundred people in Tamworth Arts Centre who have become seriously pissed off with us and are expecting something special. We don’t worry: something special is what they’re about to get.
I thrust my guitar towards its microphone, adjust my neck to a comfortable position at the vocal mic, and confidently strum the first chords to “Leave”, a recently composed masterpiece that is only slightly – about eighty per cent – influenced by “Son Of The Soil” by Raymonde. Here goes. I glance across the mic towards the blur of the audience, inhale deeply through my nose and feel my diaphragm swell. Here goes.
I hear the first line bounce back at me. The first line that I’ve deliberated over, every nuance, every word, every syllable. It echoes back through warmth-slaying, bereft of reverb, monitors. I hear my latest work of beauty, my paean to hope and love and beauty and loss and impending depression, and then I hear the sound of a hissing wild dog being brutally strangled on the end of a spike as a cheese grater skims its face into nothing. What the fuck has happened to my voice? Why can’t I hit these notes that have been hit scores of times before? Why am I hearing the sound of guttural laughter from the audience?
Then I hear, midway through the fourth line, someone in the crowd howl, “American Werewolf In London” style. Am I that bad? It would appear so, and it’s something that I don’t recover from while we’re still onstage.
The song limps to its close, a short instrumental part where Ash gets to show off his guitar prowess. Not that you can hear it. We simultaneously thrash the final chord and I wait for the worst the mob can throw at us. The reaction isn’t quite as bad as I expect. Some people, in fact, applaud. Granted, they’re probably people I know, but – squinting out at them – I can’t be sure and I’m grateful anyway. One voice manages to boo much louder than the rest. I know I should respond with something, anything, to impose my superiority over him, but I’m speechless. I’m shell-shocked.
Ash can recognise panic when he sees it and goes straight into the next song. A wise move that shuts the bad bit of the crowd up and takes my mind off how badly this is going. I manage, before I start singing again, to gesture desperately towards Denis and Gary behind the mixing desk. I hope to convey, through some frantic pointing, that I need my vocals turning up in the monitors. It’s a trick that I’ve seen real singers – especially McCulloch – use several times. But McCulloch’s a real singer who works with proper sound engineers. If I hadn’t been playing guitar at the time I would have crossed my fingers in the hope that this would work.
There is no booing and some positive clapping when this song finishes. But one person makes a point of expressing their displeasure, and express it they do. I’m staring, blinking, squinting, almost flinching, the lights shining on me making it difficult to see anything.
“Fucking rubbish. Get off.”
I’m feeling a bit more confident, given that we’ve got through a whole song of ours without a bum note, so this time I do respond.
“I don’t know,” I lean into the microphone, raising my eyebrows as high as they’ll go, “there’s always one, isn’t there?”
This provokes enormous laughter from most of the crowd but, fair play to him, he’s straight back in.
“Yeah. There is. And you’re fucking it.”
More laughter, then a voice I recognise, yelling something about getting rid of these fucking beer monsters. Cheers, Rob.
I’ve managed, by now, to pick out the source of the abuse. Some hefty bastard who’d have me any day in a fight. But he isn’t the most elegantly dressed man I’ve ever seen, green and white doesn’t seem to suit him, and I feel that this is worth a mention.
“Oh, come on, “ I say, “just look at the state of your shirt.”
More laughter. Just not from him.
Ashley, being sensible, begins playing the next song, a lovely 3/4 time lament about me not being worthy for the girl of my dreams. The usual. Mid-song, the next band on who happen to be sat at the side of the stage just to my left, decide that this is the time to start clowning around. Amid much cackling, one of them starts rocking their plugged-in guitar amp back and forth, causing the awful crash of sprung reverb that just so appears to be louder than we currently are. A few times in subsequent years, as I fucked their singer’s girlfriend – with him knowing nothing about it – I thought of that moment and decided that I had the moral high ground.
We get through the song but that’s about it. It concludes and I look across at Ashley, jerking my head to the left and telling him with my eyes that this has now finished and we’re not going to play “In My Room” after all.
We are hunched shamefully, not able to look at the audience, as we quickly scurry backstage.
“Fuck me,” I say, “useless weren’t I?”
Diplomatically, Ash tells me that it wasn’t that bad, that we just happened to be playing to a few drunken idiots. We’re both right. It takes me a while to get myself composed, to get my breathing back to normal. We store our guitars in what we hope is a safe place and take the plunge back through the crowd towards the bar. Boy, are we going to the bar.
The first person I notice is Mr green-stripy shirt, who leers at me with something approaching benevolence. I get it: he’s a paying punter who has the right to jeer anything he doesn’t like. He is unaware of the mental anguish that his heckling can put an aspiring pop star through. I swiftly pass Rob, who mutters something encouraging about us being okay and beer monsters being complete wankers. I reach the steps, leading from what makes for an auditorium, and find myself face to face with Sam Holliday. He looks at me with barely disguised pity and I’m embarrassed. I’ve been such a big mouth about how great we are, and now this.
“Please, Sam,” I implore, “don’t review that.”
I attempt to follow Ashley to the bar, but am surprised to be stopped in my tracks by Ian Gibbons. I’ve known Ian for a while, but I could hardly claim that we were mates. He’s taken my money at gigs, and once mistakenly accused Spencer and I of taking drugs at The Rathole – in the days before we’d ever taken drugs – but he is a bit of a local character. Right palm up, he gestures for me to lend him my ears, and he must see the disappointment in my face.
“Lee, your lyrics,” he says through the familiar blurred lisp, “are fucking brilliant.”
It’s the one thing that makes the night okay: a Tamworth “face” seeing through the fact that I can’t sing and acknowledging that we’ve got something. I then do something that I’ve never, before or since, been particularly comfortable with, unless it’s at fantastic football matches. I hug him. In the middle of the Arts Centre’s bar. I say thank you. And I really fucking mean it.
To be continued...
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