Monday, March 21, 2011

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.

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