Monday, 29 June 2009

Michael Jackson – Dangerous Days

I wasn't going to add to all the furore surrounding the death of Michael Jackson, but I feel somehow compelled to contribute a personal memory of the man.

Back in 1992 I was still fairly new to the role of music journalist and was really just learning the ropes. I had interviewed Michael Jackson's guitarist Jennifer Batten for Guitarist magazine and was surprised when she sought me out at a music show in London when the Jackson 'Dangerous' tour hit town. When I asked her how the tour was going she asked me if I would like to see the show and I said, 'Yes, please...' I wasn't a Jackson fan, but I was aware that the show had been dubbed a spectacular second to none and thought, well, why not?

So I set off to Wembley Stadium a few days later – and I remember that day particularly because someone chose to smash into the back of my car at a roundabout on the way into London!

When I arrived, I picked up my press tickets and passes and went off backstage. Now, before you ask, no I didn't meet Jackson – I didn't even manage to get to say 'hi' to Jennifer. Backstage security was so tight I think it would have been easier to slip inside Buckingham Palace. In fact, as my backstage credentials hadn't been countersigned by one of the security overlords, I was restricted to the bar and VIP areas only. If that happened today, I'd know where to go in order to make a fuss, but I was still pretty green back then.

In any case, when showtime arrived I found my seat and told myself that it would be great to see Jennifer strut her stuff with Jackson, even if I was unlikely to get too excited about the music itself.

I guess you know what's coming; I was pretty much blown away. The show was incredibly impressive and Jackson himself had this indefinable aura about him – and it was so obvious just how good a showman Michael was. I would put witnessing a Michael Jackson performance up there with seeing Elvis – the realisation that you're seeing a legend and not just another pampered pop star.

Sadly the intervening years have not gone well for MJ; it would be wonderful if a performer of that magnitude could actually have a reasonable expectation of leading a 'normal' life. If this were possible then maybe the thousands of people who bought tickets for the now abandoned O2 shows would get to see something truly historical.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Flying In A Blue Nightmare...

I have never actually flown with a guitar – never really needed to as the bulk of my work has kept me within the UK. I've had the opportunity to take short domestic 'hops' but have always chosen to put in the extra motorway miles instead. Why? I've heard too many horror stories, that's why...

Now I know many musicians who fly with their instruments all the time and, for the most part, nothing goes awry. Some have told me that their precious hand-made whatever has ended up in one place while they landed in another, but there's generally a happy ending to the tale, even if there's been a little bit of inconvenience experienced along the way.

But I heard a story the other day that surprised even this old cynic. A very famous musician was flying between Germany and the UK and checked two guitars into the baggage hold. Bear in mind that in order to do so, you have to sign a document which releases the airline from any responsibility if the instrument(s) are damaged in transit. Something which kinda gives baggage handlers carte blanche, in my opinion...

Anyway, when he arrived, one case was clearly very badly damaged. In fact, he said that you could see tyre tracks across the top of it. In other words, somewhere along the line, it had actually been run over! Obviously, we can expect our luggage to experience a few knocks and scuffs along the way – it's understandable, as airports are very busy places and the sheer ergonomics involved in loading and unloading aircraft at speed is inevitably going to cause some minor mishaps. But tyre tracks, fer gawd's sake?

Fortunately, and somewhat unbelievably, the guitar wasn't damaged, which is a tribute to the case manufacturer concerned; but I'd love to hear how the airline responsible talked their way out of that one!

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Going Postal...

Now I don't usually use this blog for my own personal soapbox-hopping, but an incident occurred earlier this week that I feel needs commenting upon...

I had to go down to the post office to buy a stamp, you see; something I've done hundreds of times before and, over the years, I've come across many variations in queueing strategy. Years ago, it was the norm to find around six 'windows' staffed by post office personnel and six queues in front of them. Then, someone had the brainwave that space and potential 'queue rage' could be saved at a stroke by having a single line of customers, coiled serpent-like around the public area, waiting to be called forth by a recorded message from someone who sounded far too cheerful to be human.

As far as I know – and what I learned about logistics in those brief moments of wakefulness in maths lessons at school – both systems were adequate in their own way. I mean, think about it; there are six people serving and 20 people waiting in line. It doesn't really matter if it's one line or six separate ones, does it? I would imagine that customers get served in approximately the same amount of time. And, of course, with the former, there's the added delight of playing 'post office queue roulette' where you have to make the decision about which line would be speediest to join.

However, now it seems we are subject to a new generation of middle-management types who make decisions about simple ergonomics – and they've hatched a real corker of a plan for Bath post office. Now customers have to take a numbered ticket – like the deli counter at Sainsbury's – and sit around waiting for that far-too-cheerful voice to tell you which window to go to.

OK, so far so good. There must have been a reason to change over to this system from the old one – although I have to admit that I can't work it out. But, here's the twist; the number you are allotted is different depending on what you're visiting the post office for. The machine that issues your ticket has around five different designations (and, before you ask, no I can't remember all of them). Certainly, one is for 'identity services' which I took to mean that perhaps you were visiting the post office to sort out your new passport or driving licence application – and fair enough; you know what it's like waiting in line for a stamp when the guy in front hasn't filled the form in properly. Grrr, right?

But a member of staff must have witnessed my hesitation, standing there as I was wondering where all the happy queueing public were hiding. This is a rough version of the conversation that ensued:

"Can I help you?"

"Yes, I'm just trying to work out your new system..."

"You need to take a ticket – what have you come in for?"

"A stamp."

She pressed the computer screen at the point where it said 'Identity Services' and handed me the ticket that appeared from nowhere.

"Identity services? For a stamp?"



I think her sense of humour had waned by now. It must have been a long day, after all, and so I merely smiled in what I hope was an ironic way and walked off to await the summoning of the cheerful one.

But I'm seriously thinking of going back on pension day to see how they cope then...

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Right Place: Right Time...

Just about every musician I've ever spoken to has agreed that a great deal of an individual's chances of success in the music business relies on them being in that mythical right place at the right time. But I think there's a lot more to it than that. I think you've got to be in the right place at the right time – but with the right attitude.

To illustrate what I mean, I'll give you a few examples. 

I once knew a bass player who was really, really good. He was a joy to play with in that he could find the exact groove necessary for whatever we were playing and deliver it in spades for as long as you needed him to. It was just a matter of time before he got head-hunted and sure enough, he received a phone call from a name musician asking if he would do a European tour. Despite the fact that it meant we were suddenly minus a bass player, we were all very happy for him and wished him well. The trouble was that whilst he was together in the playing stakes, from a businesslike point of view, he was nothing short of a disaster.

Doing any kind of tour isn't just a simple case of getting on the right plane on the right day, it takes planning and a lot of paperwork. Back then, you needed some sort of work permit for certain European countries and in order to get them, you had to produce documents and fill in a few forms. For some reason, the bass player in question could not (or would not) get his act together on this front and, after weeks of phone calls from the band in question with increasingly more and more desperate demands for his papers, he lost the job. The music business is like that: you generally only ever get one chance.

The next couple of contrasting scenarios feature me in the lead role... 

I was once called to do a gig where a legendary saxophone player was guesting. The band concerned was a jazz fusion outfit who occasionally drifted into funk in a sort of Miles Davis kind of way. So naturally I took a Strat, a box of effects, an amp and my jazz fusion head along. After the first half, the band leader called me over and told me that Mr Sax Legend wanted to open the second half with a duet – with me. So I went and sought him out to ask what he wanted to play. He said he wanted to play My Funny Valentine – a jazz standard. Now, it occurred to me that I had with me some entirely inappropriate gear; I'd left my archtop at home, along with the necessary mindset for playing standards. But, in the spirit of 'the show must go on' I borrowed a real book from the bass player, checked out the chart for 'Valentine' and went on stage hoping I wasn't about to end my career on a low note.

But the worst was yet to come... While we were playing the first few chorusses with me providing some pretty (and hopefully apt) changes, a thought struck me like a knife in the chest: any minute, he was going to nod me in for a solo. And when you're the only other instrument, 'solo' means solo. My mind raced from 'surely not' to 'oh, God our help in ages past...' and sure enough, Mr Legend turned round and bade me take my turn in the spotlight.

Now I have no delusions whatsoever about being Joe Pass, but I must have managed to painfully scrape something together because no-one actually laughed. But I certainly wasn't asked for my phone number that night.

Fast forward a few months and the same thing happened; same band, different sax legend. This time, though, the music remained in that funky fusion comfort zone that both my gear and I were happy with. The gig went well – and three months later I got a phone call from Sax Legend II asking me if I would be interested in joining his band...

Right time, right place, right attitude – and the right gear.