Friday, 5 June 2009

South East London Song Contest

The band are now playing at full pelt, brass section giving it oomph, Telecasters are chopping and bass syncopating with snare. But the enthusiastic dancers have given the floor over to someone who is clearly having it larger than they are. The shape thrower in question, who looks like a combination of the foreman from Auf Widersehen Pet and Little Krankie, has now stripped off his polo shirt and is doing bare-chested press-ups on the pub floor. Ah, it's good to be back in South East London on a Saturday night.

The patrons of the Ladywell Tavern must be the only people in the entire country who aren't watching the final of Britain's Got Talent. Why am I missing this televisual feast? Don't I want to see how SuBo is going to fare? Am I, as my good friend Andy suggests, "a bit weird"? Why would I want to miss the ultimate bit of communal A&R? After all, I couldn't resist sitting down with my five year-old daughter and watching a generous slice of Eurovision this year. No one can accuse me of being some elitist twat who only accepts music that has been blessed by hipsters as you will know if you've been reading this for any length of time. I am, in fact, the polar opposite of this; far more likely to embrace a Girls Aloud album than one by Bon Iver - how many tunes does Bon have per song? Answer: two at best; how many do Xenomania give Girls Aloud? Five per song. Fah. Eye. Vah! Count 'em.

Eurovision had the usual pitiful selection of tunes but some unforgettable performances - Dita Van Tease's appearance with Germany's appalling entry was so popular with Maddy that she forced me to sit through it a second time the moment it finished. How I cursed the Sky+. At least she showed a modicum of taste when half way through Norway's inexplicably winning entry, referring to an earlier Graham Norton quip, she said, "Daddy, I agree with what that man said before, I want to give him a slap too."

But why watch talent on the telly when you can go out and see some of it in real life? We were off to see the band - The Grey Cats - that a friend of mine plays in. The clue of course is in the name - these men are not young. Some of them are even older than me. By day they are all mortgaged, parenting, reliable pillars of society but every now and then they put on some black clothes, pick up horns, guitars and sticks and practice some Clash songs. They've all got their own hair and most of them are slim enough to have tucked-in shirts without looking like cabbies. In short: for a bunch of old fellas singing London Calling they don't look too ridiculous.

The pub is packed for their performance, mostly friends and family of course - but how brilliant does this feel? It's like I suppose it was before entertainment was provided so easily on recordings - when, as the cliche goes, you had to make your own entertainment. To a certain extent I go along with Bill Drummond who believes that 'all recorded music has run its course' and that we should ditch it all and 'start again'. Clearly The Grey Cats are not out to produce anything quite so radical as Drummond's choir - you can't imagine The 17 doing a version of Stray Cat Strut with as much gusto as The Grey Cats - but the fact that we have all come to watch some blokes playing for fun, who have no worries about playing a few bum notes or wonky time signatures, says something.

Perhaps it's what all of us who never really liked sport are destined to do - instead of golf or fishing or watching the cricket we dust down our guitars, buy some new plectrums and get on the phone to some cheap rehearsal rooms. I'm playing music again for the first time in 20 years, as are many of my friends. I've yet to do any gigs (and boy, if I do, am I going to keep that one quiet) but I'm in a minority - one bunch of 40-something friends are in a band called Mass Data Storage (I love this band name) - who, despite having a jazz-obsessed bass player with the brain the size of a planet, only play three chord new wave covers.

The beauty of pop music being so old is that we are now all mature enough to recognise it as something which we shouldn't feel bad about maintaining a passion for until we die. Why should we put childish things away as we puff up, lose brain cells and develop ear hair? Most of us had some sort of aspiration to play rock when we were young but it's only recently become acceptable for normal middle aged guys, who aren't Stephen King or Simon Armitage to get up and play just as badly as they did when they were teenagers.

And talking of teenagers, last week I also got some first hand experience of another phenomenon at the other end of the age spectrum: the pop music school. I was asked to talk to a bunch of students at a North London music school about their Myspace pages .

The idea of going to school to learn about pop music still seems slightly bizarre to me. After all, School of Rock was only a handful of years ago. But these schools are a massive growth area in the UK and seemingly there is no end to the amount of kids who want to formalise their pop music knowledge so they can earn a living from it. Come to think of it, my mate from The Grey Cats has a daughter who goes to the BRITs school in Croydon.

This was the first time I'd ever spoken to students about the music business and frankly I was a little alarmed. Not just at the prospect of standing up in front of a class who might take anything I said as undisputed truth but also at what you say to kids who want to get into the music business when no one really knows what this business is any more.

Of course, the usual thing happened before any of the kids arrived - no one could work out how to make the overhead projector connect to the laptop. It's always the same, whether you are organising a surprise birthday party for your wife or an international A&R conference: whenever more than 6 people gather together in a conference room, all AV gear will stop working for as long as it takes for everyone from Post Room staff to Prada-sporting CEOs to be on their hands and knees under furniture shouting "Is it working now? Can you press AUX? No? Well, press PHONO, see if that works!"

Eventually we got it working (one of the students saved the day, of course) and in the blink of an eye the two hours I was booked to talk to them disappeared. In that time I found myself spouting all sorts of music industry lore I never even knew existed. I've heard this is what happens to lecturers and teachers - you are seduced by the sound of your voice - hey, I'm making these guys laugh... I AM A GOLDEN GOD.

This was a very smart bunch of kids and most of what I was saying was simple common sense - about logos, images and blogs - but they still seemed to something from it. We didn't speak much about songwriting and the music each Myspace was promoting but in preparing for the lecture I'd come across some notes I'd made back in the 90s when I was at Indolent and listening to far too many demos. I decided to close on this just to give them a little hint at the depths of my cynicism - it's a list of the most common lyrical cliches I found on demo tapes. Believe me, these blunders are so common if you have ever written a song you will have used one. So here as a little bonus are the Top Ten Lyrics To Be Avoided

10 Deep inside (combined either with "I've got a feeling..." or "Make you feel good...")
9 How much you mean to me
8 I hope and I pray
7 Don't matter what I do (plus optional) just can't get over you
6 Change... rearrange
5 You can't run, you can't hide
4 Just can't go on (and yet somehow, they manage to...)
3 Should have seen those lies in your eyes (plus optional) made me realise
2 Never thought it could be this way
1 Till the break of dawn.

The Grey Cats have a couple of their own songs which avoid any of the above - something I think we must thank the punk rock idiom for is the absence of navel gazing love lyrics. And talking of navel gazing, I find myself staring at the naked torso of Mr Krankie who is now being escorted from the pub by the landlord. He is clearly no stranger to White Ace and has a face which tells a thousand stories - most of them ending in being escorted from the building. "He comes to all our shows" announces Grey Cats singer Jac, and there is a ripple of mirth before the floor fills again to the strains of a Message to You Rudie and I start worrying about the babysitter.


  1. Hi Ben,

    Great blog and I really enjoyed the masterclass. I was the one who sorted the overhead projector and I actually work at the school (although I'm flattered that you thought I was young enough to blend in with the students).

    I like the subject of this blog; "making your own entertainment". There's nothing better than live music (as long as it's played well). You'll be glad to know that I've adjusted my myspace accordingly and Stevie Wonder is no longer in my list of influences (we all make mistakes Ben).

    I hope you liked the CD I gave you, I'm sure you get hassled all the time, but there we go (any feedback would be appreciated -

    There was one lyric that you missed off the list that was my favourite:

    "You don't know what you do to me"

    It's terrible, but it's a classic.

    Thanks again.

  2. Thanks Phil - I missed off the "Break of dawn" in the masterclass, which is a bit of a classic. Am listening to your demo as I write, will be in touch. B

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