Voltarol - related music

Friday, 13 June 2008

The roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd...

Once again Radio Four sparks off an idea for a posting. I was listening to Bill Bailey on desert Island Discs this morning and he was talking about how he psyches himself up for a gig. It set me thinking about my own career (such as it was) in front of audiences and how I felt about it. When I first set foot in public I did not consider myself to be a musician (although music has always been part of what I do). I was (or was trying to be) first and foremost a performer and was totally without fear for the first few years of my on-stage life. I was bomb-proof. Nothing could throw me. In fact, I was case-hardened. Let me explain.

I had failed the eleven plus exams in spectacular fashion, having little or no interest in anything that school had to offer. I was reading fairly fluently by the age of four and a half and had not, therefore, been terribly engaged by the unspeakably tedious doings of Janet and John. As a consequence I assumed the same to be true of any school book, so plowed my own furrow by spending a great deal of my time in the local library which was conveniently located right next door to the school. I managed to keep my head above water sufficiently to always stay in the A or B streams throughout primary school but ended up at the local secondary modern school nonetheless.

My best friend, Muff had also ended up there a year earlier. He was by far the smartest and most interesting person that I knew, but a mixture of his own personal shyness and the inability of the education system to recognise exceptional ability if it was a tad nonconformist meant that he had stayed in the C stream during his time in primary school. Thus, secondary modern had been inevitable. (To illustrate just how wide of the mark the system could be - a few years after leaving school, Muff read Beowulf, the famous 11th Century epic poem. He was sufficiently intrigued by it to want to read it in the original language and so taught himself Anglo Saxon.)

So there we were, at a school that, at the time, was considered to be one of the roughest in England - so much so that 'Panorama' made a programme about it - and the arts were not high on its agenda. Also, unlike Alan Plater's 'San Quentin High' from the wonderful - and fully musically connected - 'Beiderbecke' series) there were no inspirational and eccentric teachers about the premises. When the time came for a school concert an announcement was pinned up on the noticeboard to the effect that auditions were soon to be held in the main hall and requesting that anybody who had a 'turn' to offer should attend these. There was also to be a school play - the title of which escapes me now - in which I had a small but noticeable part as I spoke the opening line. (I can still remember it: "Sir, Sir, is the lady of the 'ouse at 'ome?)

Muff and I, together with a lad from Muff's class called Philip Webb (who was also a bit of an outsider), decided to work up a sketch for the concert. I don't remember all the details but it was heavily influenced by The Goon Show and involved a banner on a stick (carried by a po-faced and silent Philip Webb) that read 'More Beer for the Workers', Muff and me carrying a bottle-filled sock each, which we 'played' with spoons, and the slurred singing of 'Nellie Dean', the archetypal pub song of the time. Given that we were thirteen and fourteen years old at this time (and I was still in short trousers) this must have been a somewhat bizarre spectacle, albeit a somewhat prophetic one as Muff and I were to develop quite a powerful relationship with beer and music during our time in the Jugular Vein.

I was very taken by this stage lark and was not content with the play and the group sketch, so I also worked up two solo pieces to present. One was a rip-off of a comic of the day whose name I can't remember, but whose act consisted of delivering bucolic observations on modern day life with a broad country accent, and whose 'get-off' line was -"Well, Oi must be orf. It's a long walk back to Dorset'. I constructed an act which involved a blackboard and chalk and some very dubious mathematical explanations, all delivered in a bad 'Mummerset' accent and concluding with the aforementioned catch phrase. I also had an idea for a mime act involving me pretending to play Leroy Anderson's 'Forgotten Dreams' on the school piano, starting with my hands but slowly progressing to the use of feet and finally my backside. This last item I hadn't actually rehearsed, being sure that I could wing it at the audition. I duly managed to borrow a copy (78 r.p.m. of course) of the record, which was quite popular at the time as the tune had been used as the theme music for a Francis Durbridge thriller on the TV.

We duly turned up on the day of the auditions. First up for scrutiny was the joint effort - the 'Nelly Dean' piece. This went by on the nod, with only a barely-raised eyebrow from the producer. Next up was my 'Mummerset' rubbish and this too was accepted, then it was the turn of 'Forgotten Dreams'. The record went on and I flailed about somewhat hopelessly as it quickly dawned upon me that the piece just wasn't going to work. I got to the last verse and mimed playing what were, literally, bum notes as the tune concluded, certain in the knowledge that this would - quite deservedly - receive the 'thumbs down'.
"Yes. Fine. Next" said the producer.
"Er...I don't think it will work sir" I said, "I don't think I want to do it".
"Nonsense boy. You'll do it and like it and that's the end of it!" said the producer.
I think that it was at this point that it began to dawn on me that there weren't actually many other people present and that the main criterion for passing the audition was that you actually turned up. They were obviously woefully short of material.

And so the day of the concert dawned. The school play had been withdrawn from the proceedings as it had been dreadfully under rehearsed and the English master in charge had decided to get out whilst the going was good. All depended on the individual acts. I don't remember much about our performance of 'Nelly Dean' other than the fact that it was quite well received. The 'Mummerset' sketch actually went reasonably and drew a few laughs. There were one or two other items, including a spoof 'This is Your Life' routine, the subject of which was our bald bricklaying instructor (played by a fourth-former in a pink swimming cap) and then it was time for the Leroy Anderson number.

The sketch was announced, the curtains parted and I made my way nervously to the piano and sat down. The record started and I went, reluctantly, into my abysmal routine. It was greeted at first by a kind of sullen silence, but by the middle of the second chorus the booing and catcalling were beginning. By the middle of the third chorus they were in full throat. I put my head down and struggled on, willing the whole thing to be over. Suddenly the headmaster strode angrily on to the stage gesturing imperiously at the wings and with smoke and flames practically issuing from his nostrils. The music ground to a halt and the audience went silent. The Headmaster stabbed his finger angrily, first at me -frozen with my back to the piano in the middle of a 'bum' note - and then at the audience. "This boy has gone to a lot of time and effort to try and entertain you...you...oafs!" he spluttered, "and all you can do is howl and catcall like a bunch of demented idiots..." (at least the second of these statements was more or less accurate) "so - he's going to do it again and this time..." I didn't actually hear the last part of the announcement as I had withdrawn very far inside myself and must have been damn near catatonic as I went through the ordeal again, because I can't remember anything about the rest of the day. But from then until I finally started to concentrate on being a musician rather than a performer, I was fearless on stage. Nothing could ever be as bad as that experience.