Wednesday, 27 May 2009


I was recently musing about that age-old musicians' favourite topic – the worst gig you've ever played: stories from the trenches of musical combat. Looking back at my history as a gigging musician, I've experienced some absolute nightmares on stage... Here are a few of the more memorable ones.

There was a time when the band I was with had a booking at a pub in Felixstowe. We were a five piece, with our own PA and when we arrived at the gig we asked the publican where we should set up. So he moved a few tables away from one corner of the pub and we began to set up our gear. One of us noticed that there were no power sockets anywhere in sight and when we asked where the nearest outlets were, the publican told us to give him a nod when we were ready and he'd unplug the juke box. One socket to power guitar, bass, PA, sundry effects, etc... Not a sensible option. I think we used every extension cable within a four mile radius that night.

Another time (different band) we arrived at a venue and couldn't find the power amp for the PA. The bass player and keyboard player looked at each other and announced simultaneously, 'I thought you were bringing it!' Luckily, one of my guitar students was in the audience that night and he was able to run home and get the amp from his own band's PA.

The there was an occasion where we were booked to play at a country house. It was out in the wilds of the Essex countryside and directions were vague, to say the least. We phoned the guy who had booked us (it was a garden party) and he said not to worry, he would be putting up signs from the main road, directing his guests to the house. I set off and drove towards the gig and got totally lost. At one point I saw the bass player's car approaching on the other side of the road. We stopped, decided to form a convoy and set off once again. Eventually, we came across the house down a long driveway and when we said to the host that we must have missed his signs he said, 'Oh, I haven't put them up yet.' 

I was at a gig one night – one of those rare occasions when you get to play on a really large stage – and my big moment was approaching; one of those tunes where the guitar makes a seriously dramatic entrance. I was milking it for all I was worth, too; stalking the stage looking suitably cool and posing inordinately. My time arrived and I hit the first note: nothing. I'd walked so far from my amp I'd pulled the guitar lead out without noticing.

They say 'the show must go on' and it's particularly true when you're playing a solo gig. There's no one to cover for you and so you have to muster through, whatever happens. I was booked at an arts centre to play some solo jazz guitar, but the problem was I had a seriously upset stomach. That's seriously upset, OK?. I'll never forget those last moments before I went on stage, tuning my guitar in the toilet... 

Possibly the worst experience, though, was playing at a large London venue where, owing to a game of Chinese Whispers between the venue, the guy who booked us and the band we had to play the entire set without monitors. It was a very big PA system and a huge stage, but for some reason the venue thought that we didn't need a monitor engineer (the guy who has a separate mixing desk at the side of the stage for the PA foldback) and so we couldn't hear each other at all. We played the gig using telepathy more than anything – from where I was standing I couldn't hear any vocals, bass, drums, keyboards, not even myself. It's surprising how sound just dissipates completely in a large open space. Needless to say, we came off stage at the end of the gig feeling really despondent – until the guy who booked us poked his head around the door of the dressing room and said, 'That was really great! What an amazing sound...'

And they say that music has one of the toughest apprenticeships in the world!

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Eurovision: Please Let It Die!

First, a fantasy conversation between Noël Coward and Andrew Lloyd-Webber:

"Ah, Mr Lloyd-Webber – I am, of course, familiar with your work. I particularly enjoyed the music to West Side Story."

"But I didn't write the music for West Side Story."


Now I've got that off my chest... Seriously, isn't it time we let the Eurovision Song Contest die? And this isn't just born from sour grapes because we failed to trash Norway; it's just the whole farcical nature of the thing.

To begin with, according to my knowledge of geography (which I'll admit to being somewhat sketchy at best) Russia isn't even in Europe. So the rules are being kinda stretched a bit these days, eh?

Secondly, the guy who won last night is already a huge pop star in his country and not some random element picked from a tiresome TV talent show (no offence Jade, but it's the truth).

So when we did we start playing games with our European brethren (and Russia) with a self-imposed handicap? In the past, we've had Cliff Richard, Lulu, etc batting for our team but is it now down to some sort of national conceit that we pass over the fact that British pop music is actually quite good and decide to knobble our chances?

If we can extend this kind of thinking to sport, would we enter a football team against Germany in a cup final which was made up from enthusiastic amateurs? Or would we pick the best of the best and really go for it?

And then there's the BBC dedicating three and a half hours to the thing (add an hour if you include the documentary that ran earlier in the evening). I recommend that the Beeb's programme planners spend the evening in a DVD rental shop on a Saturday night when Eurovision is on: when someone rents Heaven's Gate as an alternative to Euroboredom, it's surely a cry for help.

It's gone past that stage when Eurovision was so bad it was actually good, so let's just cut and run...

And bring back European It's A Knock-Out instead!

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Recording in The Field: A Survival Guide

When I was recording my album 'Nocturnal' I came across a  problem which required an unorthodox solution. It all started when I decided I wanted some real sea noises on one track...

Yeah, I know what you're thinking: silly old hippy. But that's only half the story; not only did I want sea noises at the start of one of the tracks, I wanted to record them myself and they had to be taken from the very place that inspired the piece concerned. This meant a trip to Cornwall with some portable recording gear.

So I set off for St Ives with a Sony stereo recording Walkman, a microphone and some headphones. The first couple of days after we arrived there was a stiff breeze and anyone who has ever tried outside recording will know that wind is your worst enemy. This is why news reporters and the like use those microphones that look a bit like stuffed badgers. Their fluffy exterior (the mics', not the reporters') act as a baffle for the wind, meaning that your recording is free from most extraneous weather-produced interference.

I knew all of this, naturally; but I don't have a furry muffle for my mic and, to be honest, I didn't think I'd need one. Sigh.

So the first day that the wind quietened a bit, I went down to the shore with my gear and tried to get some 'lapping' noises on tape. The results were a bit iffy, and I was still getting wind noises (and wet feet) but there were sections of tape that I thought would probably be useable.


It's one thing listening to your efforts on a pair of headphones back at the hacienda, but another one entirely when the results are played back in the discriminating environment of a recording studio. In short, there was too much tape hiss (yes, I wasn't geared up for digital, either) and not enough clear 'lapping' to show through the quiet acoustic intro to the track.

Back to the drawing board – and, as it turned out, back to St Ives. But this time I was prepared. Well, almost. I managed to borrow a Mini Disc recorder from the recording engineer (Martin Holmes) knowing that this would rule out the tape hiss, but was trusting luck that my stereo mic would be good enough to pick up some uninterrupted sea noises.

This time, the weather was more favourable in St Ives; but I was still picking up the wind on the mic. I had to think and, drawing upon survival instincts I didn't know I had, came up with the solution. I got hold of a potato-masher from the kitchen where we were staying, an old sock and a rubber band. By managing to suspend the mic inside the potato-masher with the rubber band and covering the whole assembly with the sock I had a makeshift baffle – and to my surprise (and that of the recording engineer when I played him the results later) it worked. I managed to get about 30 minutes of sea noises from about three different locations and no wind noise.

Recording the sea – improvised mic assemblage in my right hand

We ended up using about 20 seconds of the recording on the album and yes, I know I could have got exactly the same noises from using a library sound-effect disc, but the devil is in the detail and now, whenever I listen to the beginning of 'Dark Harbour' I know that the sea noises came from the exact geographic location where the piece was conceived.