Friday, March 25, 2011

The Alcoves V: Alcove In Wardour Street

A hot summer evening in Soho, driving with Tony Wager through rush-hour traffic in his wheezing Triumph Herald. Dave Vanian in full make-up wearing a cape materializes.

"Hey look! Dave Va... right! TURN RIGHT NOW!"

Tony swung the car onto Wardour Street. Almost immediately we discovered that Wardour Street is one-way and the way we were going was not the one indicated by the large arrows. Tony executed a series of hand gestures to indicate to the oncoming traffic that his navigator was an idiot. I waved.

In the same way that punk had given permission and opportunity to people like me to form a band, it also prompted us to write. Fanzines sprung up as rapidly as bands and were often as transitory. Bev was now not only lead singer of The Alcoves, she was editor of Fijit. She cunningly invited me to write for the fanzine, thereby becoming my boss.

The previous day Bev had handed me a list of questions, a cassette recorder, and a spare battery for the cassette recorder.

"We've got an interview with Modern Jazz tomorrow at The Marquee," she said.


"We. Fijit."

"No, I meant who is Modern Jazz?"

Bev handed me their press kit.

"Wouldn't it be better if someone who'd heard of them did it?" I said.

"You live nearest," said Bev. "You better write down the interview too, the cassette recorder's a bit iffy."

This didn't strike me as the greatest assignment ever, but I thanked the boss anyway. It was my first interview. I'd done a couple of gig reviews, but for some reason my main role at Fijit was writing opinion pieces in which I insulted everyone who wasn't in The Alcoves or the handful of bands that we liked and gigged with. As an avid reader of the NME, I based my style on that of Julie Burchill.

Maybe it was the lack of sleep or a hypomanic episode. Possibly a reaction to The Alcoves gaining a following. Maybe I'm just a mouthy bastard. But in the space of a couple of issues of Fijit I'd unleashed largely unprovoked attacks on Phil Smee (who I'd never met), Waldo's Records (despite liking most of their releases), The Innocent Vicars (having forgotten I knew them), and another fanzine named "99% Shit" (which I did read, thereby deviating from a purist Burchill stance).

The bouncer at The Marquee seemed less than pleased to see us.

"We're on the guest list." I said.

"Ain't got no fuckin' list. Too fuckin' early."

"But we're here to interview the band," I said, waving the cassette recorder as definitive proof.

The bouncer sighed. "Wait here."

He returned a couple of minutes later with a man in a puffy shirt who identified himself as the manager of Modern Jazz and who escorted Tony and me to the dressing room.

Any plans I had on a hard-hitting, in-depth interview would have flown out the window had the dressing room had one. The place got to me. I was in the dressing room of The Marquee, someone had given me a beer, and two members of a band I had never heard of were sitting on a dilapidated sofa explaining the lyrical significance of their latest single "In My Sleep I Shoot Sheep."

They played the record over the Marquee's P.A.

It was okay.

I noticed that someone had written "Pete Townshend," on the wall behind the sofa. It occurred to me that the somebody was probably Pete Townshend.

The cassette recorder did work. I transcribed the interview and gave it to my editor. It didn't make it into the next issue of Fijit because, as far as I know, there wasn't one.

Things were beginning to fragment.

The Alcoves IV: The Bass Player Is Clueless

I may have been slightly less clueless about the local music scene had I had an older sibling, but based on events over the subsequent thirty years I may not.

Olly had an older brother Gez and thus exposure to Gez's band The Toys and their friends.

Bev was half-step-sister-in-law-once-removed to someone in The Bodies.

Roo's older sister Sally was a pink-haired punk drummer four years older than me. I fell in love with her briefly until she introduced me to Sarah who was on her way to becoming a music journalist. I fell in love with Sarah briefly and then for a slightly longer second period when it turned out she knew the folks at Zig Zag and Sniffin' Glue. Both Sally and Sarah were friends with Dawn who I married briefly and all three of them had gone to F.E. college with Nick Haeffner and others in the established St. Albans music scene.

Youth contributed to my ignorance in a second way since it kept me out of The Horn of Plenty until I was tall enough to pretend to be eighteen. John Peel went there occasionally (although I only ever saw him at The Marquee and The Lyceum), Kim Wilde worked as a barmaid, and Paul Young (when not on stage) would wander around eating toast looking absolutely delighted that he was Paul Young.

If there was nothing going on at The Horn, the Civic Hall had gigs most weekends. I had to depunk myself a bit for a Motorhead show at which ground beef filled the air. A couple of weeks later someone set my hair on fire at the Ultravox gig. I would have let it burn had I thought it would keep John Foxx in the band thereby preventing the installation of the Scottish twit with the mustache.

And there was London.

Having found that sleep was optional, I was only limited by money. This led to terrible dilemmas. I traded my 999 album for an Ian Dury and the Blockheads ticket. And I never figured out how to be in two venues simultaneously. The Pretenders or The Fall tonight? Flip a coin.

Frankly we were spoiled. There was so much music that I made the mistake of sometimes skipping opening acts in favor of the bar. At a Siouxsie and the Banshees gig in Hemel Hempstead I was elbowing my way towards a pint of bitter when I noticed the support act sounded quite good.

"Any idea who this is?" I said to the barman.

It was The Cure.

I caught their last handful of songs. The next day I stole my mother's eye-liner.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Alcoves III: Bop!

Having solved our transportation issues with the pram, the next problem was the school dress code.

I often wished, for numerous reasons, that I went to a Catholic school for girls; particularly one with a uniform that could pass for tartan. It was a wonderful thing to see the transformation that six inches of abbreviated hemline and soap in the hair could produce. However, I was forced to work within other guidelines.

Our school rules were lengthy and detailed. They included "No blatant eating in public," which meant that sucking effetely on a Polo mint outside of class was acceptable, but walking down the High Street with half a bun protruding from your gob was not.

Hair was to be kept "off the collar and off the eyebrows." Presumably this rule was added around 1964 when the last threat from electric guitars disrupting the status quo was unleashed. However, nowhere did the rules say "Thou shalt not bleach your hair and add crimson flashes."

Socks should have been a problem since I preferred dayglo pink ones and the school rules stipulated they should be "of a color that does not draw undue attention to the individual." Clearly this rule left considerable scope for interpretation, particularly by individuals like me who felt they were due a great deal of attention. I suspect the primary reason I was not asked to return home for grey ones was that the schoolmasters' attention didn't get lower than my hair.

We were compelled to wear suits. Fortunately local thrift stores were brimming with jackets with thin lapels and matching narrow trousers from the late fifties and sixties. It's quite boggling to imagine how many dead grandfathers appear in echoed outline in band photographs of the period.

Out of the indistinguishable columns of small boys in clerical grey there emerged pockets of people who clearly weren't getting enough sleep. They invariably smelled of cigarettes, and if you were silly enough to be a prefect and grab one of them by the aforementioned narrow lapels you might find they had razor blades underneath.

A bifurcation had occurred. There were now two school uniforms.

It may have been through this sartorial coding that we met The Stern Bops. Or at least how I did. I imagine Olly knew them through Gez.

I felt an immediate bond. Like The Alcoves, The Stern Bops were a four-piece with three boys and a girl. And the lead singer, Ade Clarke, played bass. At this time I knew of only two people who could sing and play bass: Phil Lynott and Suzi Quatro. Ade was clearly neither of them, but he was incredibly charming and liked The Alcoves. In Dave Foster I recognized a fellow physicist and felt it best not to discuss the matter. Simon Dodds intimidated me, but that may have been because his job as a drummer required him to hit things really hard and he had red hair. I didn't see much of Tracey Thorn at first because, by virtue of having a vagina, she violated one of the oldest school rules concerning who was eligible to be a pupil. Initially she seemed stand-offish when we started playing gigs with The Stern Bops, but I discovered that this was a result of our shared problem of pre-gig nausea and frequent visits to the loo.

The Alcoves' sound was essentially an accident. "Minimalist pop" probably describes it, partly because Roo didn't use any guitar pedals and played mostly open chords producing a tinkly, clean jangle. I stuck with Rotosound flatwounds that have a naturally low-attack, poppy bop, and Olly's drumming owed a lot more to Ringo Starr than Keith Moon. And Bev sang rather than screamed.

The Stern Bops packed more of a punch. Dave played delightful lead lines over Tracey's chords while Ade and Simon provided the driving force. The Alcoves could achieve power pop with enough wattage, but The Stern Bops started there and worked up. Interestingly though, our songs had considerable thematic overlap. The period is known, mistakenly in my opinion, for songs of anarchy and nihilism. Both The Alcoves and The Stern Bops spent plenty of time in the more traditional waters of broken hearts.

"Lampshade" and "Boys Cry Too" are two of my favorite pop songs, not just by The Stern Bops but of the entire genre. One reason I started learning how to play guitar was so I could play them.

The Stern Bops sound had got me thinking about ours. I also needed to learn to play guitar so I could write guitar lines. In fact The Stern Bops had inadvertently become responsible for my ill-fated attempt to turn The Alcoves into a five-piece.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Alcoves II: Punk's Dead And We Don't Have A Van

I was watching the Bill Grundy show when the infamous Sex Pistols interview amazed everyone. This wasn't because I was tuned in to the music sub-culture. There were only three TV channels in England at that time and we'd just got done with tea.

I really had very little interest in music at all. My record collection consisted of a handful of K-Tel compilations (accidentally rendered coolish by T. Rex and The Sweet), and "Remember You're A Womble" by Mike Batt. I was thirteen.

By the time The Alcoves were ready for their first gig, the death of punk had been written on every available Tube station wall and I was spending every lunchtime at Cloud 7 record store. I wasn't usually buying anything, but it was the place to smoke cigarettes and to annoy Dave, the manager, by asking him if he'd got the new single by a band that didn't exist. ("Ummm... Five Snotty Bastards? Fink we're gettin' that in Fursday.")

I had bleached hair, an Anti-Nazi League badge, and a nicotine addiction I would never break.

And a band.

The band, however, did not have what most bands have. A van. In fact at the time of our first show none of us were old enough to hold a UK driver's licence.

One of the recurring themes of The Alcoves is that these kinds of details never seemed to bother us. And I am puzzled by this because for most of my life I have been a worried overplanner. Fortunately, our first gig at The Hoy Club in Harpenden was only a mile from The Francis Residence that served as our back-up practice space (until we discovered why you're not supposed to play a bass through regular hi-fi speakers).

We were sharing the bill with Force Majeure. The plan was to use their amps, but we still had to get the remainder of our gear to the club. This is when we discovered that drums are big.

I don't know where we found the pram. I suppose it might have been at The Francis Residence, but given that Mrs. F. hadn't given birth for fifteen years this seems unlikely. Actually, the thing was so big that it comfortably (even luxuriously) could be called a perambulator. A baby carriage, complete with heavily-sprung suspension and bicycle wheels. Had it been much bigger it would have come with a horse attached.

This really looked like DIY music. The drums were placed in and lashed to the pram with bungee cords and gaffer (duct) tape. As we pushed the contraption past afternoon shoppers the overall effect reminded me of a NASA lunar buggy with a Tosco cymbal radar dish.

When we got to the club, Force Majeure, who were clearly a real band since they wore leather jackets and had no pram, were setting up. We had just liberated the last of the drums when the lead singer flew across the stage. I was extremely impressed with the move until I realized he'd been electrocuted. Through his teeth. And that the power had gone out.

Once his band mates had determined that it was only a minor shock, Roo was dispatched back to The Francis Residence to get 13 Amp fuses.

An hour later the lead singer of Force Majeure was flat on his back again suggesting that maybe we needed an electrician.

Somebody got the wiring sorted out. I know it wasn't me. I was busily becoming acquainted with a hitherto unknown element of being in a band. Stage fright.

I didn't mention this to anyone until a couple of years later in a pub before a Split Here gig. As I'll describe in part... IX maybe, The Alcoves were not long-lived, and I was now playing in Split Here with Olly, Dai Norman and Harvey McGavin. My stage fright was as bad as ever and heightened this particular evening by the prospect of playing to several hundred people at the F.E. college.

As I sipped my beer I looked at Dai and noticed he was defining "a whiter shade of pale." I smiled weakly.

"Why the fuck are we doing this?" I said.

He replied with a smile that was upside down. "No idea."

I later figured out why the fuck we were doing it, but that can wait till part IV.

So we played our first gig. I don't know what we sounded like. For the most part we started and stopped at the same time and people clapped a lot. Those of you who have gone through this process will understand the oddity of being at the center of something that frequently seems to be on the edge of disaster. Or maybe that just reflects my personal ineptitude. But my main recollection of the "feel" of the gig was that of being in a large pram that was bouncing down a grassy hillside. Exhilarating, but with the constant threat that we were about to hit a tree.

The Alcoves

I got thrown back in time today and frankly I'm suffering a touch of psychic whiplash.

Olly, who I have known since I was eleven, sent me an e-mail about a museum exhibit in St. Albans, Hertforshire, where we both went to school. "St. Albans Punk and New Wave '76-'81" is a remarkable collection of material from perhaps the most exhilarating, blurred, confusing, and contradictory period of my life. And it has reminded me how lucky I was to be a teenager when the punk/new wave phenomenon happened.

I've been sifting through the pictures and videos on the Facebook page all day, occasionally shouting things like "whoa, he got fat," "that guy set my hair on fire," and "was it him or his brother who threatened to kill me?" It's going to take a while to metabolize all of it. But one thing that did strike me is that I've never written about how I started playing music in the first place. And since I've spent many more years as a musician than an astrophysicist or a husband or a poker player, this seems to me to be a major omission.

I also realized that one reason I've never organized this personal history is that I wasn't exactly living a granola-and-berries existence, so some of the following "details" may turn out to be vague and possibly completely wrong.

It all started at Paul Newman's house. We'd "taken the afternoon off" from school, partly because Paul had a copy of "Another Music in a Different Kitchen." We listened to it. I knew immediately that I had to be in a band. The only thing standing in my way was that I had never played a musical instrument.

One of the advantages of bipolar type II is that these kinds of obstacles are easily brushed aside. It did occur to me, however, that real musicians would be unlikely to invite me to play with them on the reasonable grounds that I couldn't play anything.

The solution was clear. I needed to form a band. And at some point learn to play an instrument. I noticed almost immediately that a bass had fewer strings than a guitar and didn't require use of the feet, so I opted for that.

My friend Roo Francis could play the guitar. Not well, to be honest, and he tended to stick out his tongue when negotiating an F-sharp minor. Still that was one step ahead of me and he seemed keen.

Olly Sagar was already playing drums in a band. This and the practice space in the basement of his parents' house impressed me greatly. The fact that his brother, Gez, was lead singer of The Toys elevated Olly even further. When I found out he could write songs I realized that I really should learn how to play bass at some point.

I also decided that we needed a woman singer. This was probably something to do with Siouxsie and the Banshees. I wasn't particularly interested in going after that kind of sound, but I really liked the structure of the band name. And "Annie and the Alcoves" had a better ring than "Andy and the Alcoves."

In fact by the time we played our first show we'd dropped "Annie and" anyway, but we had found our singer. Bev Milton. At a party in Harpenden I asked her if she wanted to be in a band. She thought I said "Do you like the home-made wine" (that I'd borrowed from my parents) and nodded enthusiastically.

The Alcoves had been formed.

But I still couldn't play bass.

A bit of research revealed that Marcus Bush, who was a year or two ahead of me at school and had long hair, was selling a bass. Actually the fact that he had long hair may mean he had left school. To be honest I'm not positive he went to my school. But somehow I found out he was selling a bass, so I got on a bus to Potters Bar with thirty-five pounds. Marcus picked me up from the bus stop and took me to his parents' house and the bass.

I wish I still had that bass. I think much of it was home-made or at least substantially altered from its original condition. It was short-scale with a rosewood neck and black body. The scratch-plate was semi-transparent and lime green. It was strung with Rotosound flatwounds. I had no idea what that meant, of course, but that's what Marcus told me.

Marcus then suggested I play around with the bass while he ate dinner. I told him I'd never played one before. He smiled, put on a Slaughter and the Dogs record, said "it's all boxes" and left.

When he came back twenty minutes later I still didn't know what he meant and couldn't play bass, but decided to buy it anyway.

I can't remember our first practice. Our early sets included "Teenage Kicks" by The Undertones and The Ramones' "I Don't Care." We also covered a cover: "Denis" in the style of Blondie. We'd been playing it for weeks when I finally realized that Bev didn't know the real words for the French bit and was singing something about an umbrella.

I think the first original we worked up was "Party Day," by Olly. My first contribution was "Dead Cats in Spain."

And I am now going to reveal something about that song that I have never told anyone. The chord progression is... see I still can't read music and don't know much theory and don't actually remember the key we played it in, but... there's a six-semitone (I can count frets) jump that makes the riff sound quite odd and pleasingly punk. Except it was meant to be seven. A nice, melodic fifth. But I worked it out on bass before I'd figured out where all the notes were, wrote it down wrong, and gave it to Roo so he could learn the chords. When he played it I preferred it with the mistake.

Looks like I got side-tracked again. I think I'll leave The Alcoves in the practice space as they get ready for their first public performance. Which involved a pram, several electric shocks, and four encores.

And thanks to everyone who contributed to the St. Albans exhibit and the Facebook page. It's produced a remarkable day.