Voltarol - related music

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

John McCartney – the animated bassist. Part Two

Gig Shop days...

About a year or so after I started working for Uxbridge Music the company that owned it announced that they were closing the shop down. I suddenly found myself about to be unemployed but by this time I was living with my girlfriend (who was later to become Mrs Voltarol) and we had bought a flat together so I needed to do something, and I needed to do it quickly. I was certain that Uxbridge Music had gone under because it wasn’t carrying the right stock and I was equally certain that I could get my own business off the ground  - although not in Uxbridge Music’s premises because the overheads were too high. That shop was located at the end of an arcade and was quite large, but there were a number of smaller units in the arcade and one had just become vacant. I scraped together enough money for the first month’s rent, negotiated a couple of trade accounts with some musical instrument suppliers and opened my own shop.
Voltarol behind the counter of Pete's Gig Shop Mark I

Initially, the stock was pretty basic. I had a good range of guitar stings and accessories, a few amplifiers and a couple of guitars. Then I came to an arrangement with the then recently established (but now defunct) ‘Gigsville’ company who were distributing Aria guitars in the UK. I would buy their ‘seconds’ and damaged guitars at a discount and have them repaired and improved by my old friend from the Jugular Vein, Richard Bartram, who was then based in Hayes and rapidly establishing himself as a first-rate luthier and guitar repair man. Within a short time I found myself in need of an extra pair of hands in the shop. John McCartney was a frequent visitor as he was not currently working during the day, so it seemed logical that I should employ him on a casual labour basis. This was an arrangement that suited both of us because I did not yet need – and could not afford – a full time employee, and John did not want the commitment of a full time job, being in the same position that I had been in with the Jugular Vein some ten years previously.

It soon became apparent that John was not best suited to shop work – or at least, not Music shop work – because he was all too easily distracted from the customers by the opportunity to practice the bass. He would sit himself down on an amplifier and hunch over a bass guitar, running endless scales, bits of Bach, funky riffs, chorded runs, harmonic flurries and the bass lines to innumerable jazz standards. He never bothered to plug the instrument in but instead would rest his chin on the ‘horn’ of the instrument’s body – just below the strap button – and listen to himself via bone conduction. The result was that the rest of the world would just fade out for him as he became more and more absorbed in what he was doing, and despite the fact that the shop was little more than sixteen feet long by about ten feet wide, a customer could stand there for ten minutes at a time before being noticed.

Despite this I liked having John around. He wasn’t a skiver: he was just easily distracted, so with a modicum of tactful management I could get him to do the occasional useful things around the premises. Unfortunately, even when his body was involved in the job in hand, his brain often wasn’t. The length of one wall of the shop had been battened off and covered in pegboard to facilitate the display of guitars on hangers. One day whilst I was out getting some lunch, John enthusiastically took down all the instruments that were on display, cleaned and polished them, and re-hung them on the wall, giving the bass guitars priority on the top row and relegating the electric and acoustic guitars to the bottom one. Unfortunately he had failed to take into consideration such factors as the weight difference between said instruments, and the potentially disastrous consequences of the cantilever effect when applied to the top of the peg board. I returned to the shop just in time to see John watching, fascinated, as a complete sheet of pegboard peeled itself off the wall and deposited my entire guitar stock in a heap on the floor. There was a moment of silence as the dust settled and then John opened his mouth, worked his jaw mutely for maybe twenty seconds and  said “Bugger”. He picked up couple of guitars and inspected them for damage. Finding nothing major, but several chips and ‘dings’ to the finishes he looked at me hopefully and said “Discount Sale?”

Regardless of occasional incidents like this I continued to employ John whenever I needed someone to help out. He could field phone calls in a civilised manner, deal with basic sales of things like strings and plectrums, and his playing impressed the hell out of most of the would-be ‘musos’ that found their way into Pete’s Gig Shop’, as my little business was called. But most of all he was just fun to have around. We could make each other laugh all too easily and frequently devised elaborate practical jokes which we perpetrated on the customers. One such was the ‘Je Ne Sais Quoi’ pedal.

There is a breed of electric guitarist that believes that the purchase of a new effects pedal was the equivalent of six months of guitar practice. One such -  a bus driver who I shall call ‘Jon Lee’ – was a regular visitor to the shop and was for ever ‘evaluating’ the worth of the latest effects pedals, although rarely buying much beyond the occasional plectrum or spare string. He could bore for England but wasn’t a bad chap, so although we would shudder inwardly when he came into the shop, he was nevertheless treated politely at all times and would even qualify for the occasional cup of coffee. He was totally convinced of his own superior musical and technical worth despite the evidence of his own ears which should have told him all that he needed to know every time he picked up a guitar and played it. In that respect he was a bit like the character ‘Dave Lister’ in Red Dwarf.

John and I had mocked up a display box and had arranged for one of our more electronically gifted customers to create a fake foot pedal for us, which was in effect simply a connecting box. In the manner of all guitar foot-pedals it had an ‘on-off’ foot switch on the top and a jack-socket at either end labelled ‘in’ and ‘out’, but was otherwise blank. The use of this unit achieved absolutely nothing. The outer box was labelled ‘Prototype - JNSQ.’ We put it on the pedals shelf and waited for a victim. It was rare that a day went by without a visit from Jon Lee and we did not have to wait long for his arrival.
“Afternoon, Men.” he said. (He affected a ‘huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’’ type of persona – all hearty and with dropped ‘g’ endings – “Anythin’ new and excitin’?” (This was a standard opening gambit). We said that there was nothing much – well not really…and I saw that he was eying the pedal shelf carefully.
“What’s that then, that prototype thingy?” he enquired. We informed him that it was nothing much - well, it was and it wasn’t…more of a professional tool for the studio really that we were trying out for the manufacturers…The bait was taken.
“Sounds interestin’” he said. “What does it do exactly?” We said that it was hard to explain but that it just gave your sound that little extra…something…that je ne sais quoi ...it was just so subtle that you needed really good ears to detect the effect. “Look,” we said, “we’ll show you”.

Jon Lee chose the most expensive guitar in stock and lifted it down from the wall – this was his standard practice – and then took the proffered jack lead from me and connected it to the guitar. John took the other end of the lead and plugged it into the ‘in’ socket on the JNSQ and then connected another lead between the ‘out’ socket and a guitar amplifier, switched on the amp and said ‘There you go. Try that” to Jon Lee. Mr Lee adjusted the guitar sound and the amp sound to his liking (a procedure that involved much ‘umming’ and ‘aahing’ combined with theatrical tweaks to the various controls involved, but invariably resulted in everything being set at ‘10’ with the exception of the volume control on the amp) then strummed his first chord. There was so much overdrive from the amp that the guitar made a noise like a sheet of steel being thrown through a plate glass window onto a circular saw. Jon Lee nodded his approval and then depressed the footswitch on the pedal and strummed again. The same horrendous sound emanated from the amplifier. Another nod from Mr Lee and the footswitch was depressed again, and again the atmosphere was rent apart by the banshee wail.
“Very nice!” said Jon Lee, “It’s subtle but it’s excellent.”
“They don’t come much subtler than that” said John, with a perfectly straight face, “We’ll report your findings to the designers. Why don’t you put it through its paces?” He turned to me and gave me his most evil leer. “I’m sure Pete will take some notes for you. Unfortunately I have to leave early as I have a gig tonight.” He grabbed his windcheater from behind the counter and fled through the door, barely able to suppress his sniggers, and in his best Shakespearean voice declaimed “I give you Good Day!” before disappeared from view, laughing like a drain. It was at least a week before I forgave him for that

To be continued....

Friday, 18 February 2011

John McCartney – the animated bassist

Several times over the past few years I have announced my intention of writing more about the late - and many would say - great John McCartney. I finally got round to starting this task but very soon realised that this story would take more than one posting to do it any kind of justice. Here, therefore, is part one of the story of my friendship with him.

Around 1977 I was working in a music shop in Uxbridge called – unsurprisingly – Uxbridge Music. It was owned at that time by John Gummer (no, not that John Gummer but the one who had previously been a director of City Organ and Record Centres) and Richard ‘Rick’ Watts (late of Simms Watts Amplification). One morning, a tall, curly haired and well spoken chap came into the shop for some bass strings. I served him with a set of Rotosound  ‘Swing Bass’ Round wound strings and then he asked if he could try out one of the electric basses that we had in stock. I said “yes”, plugged in the second hand Burns Bison bass that had taken his fancy, excused myself and went over to answer the telephone. The next thing I heard was Charlie Parker’s ‘Donna Lee’ being executed superbly. This was only a  year after Jaco Pastorius had burst on to the scene and turned every electric bassist’s world upside down. I had heard many an aspiring bassist try to emulate Jaco’s version of this tune, but I had never heard anyone get beyond the first four bars without stumbling before, and certainly not at the speed of the original performance. This guy had it completely under control and – much to my amazement – wasn’t actually ‘show-boating’ his performance. He had his face to the wall and had turned the volume down on the amp!

That was my first introduction to John McCartney. I tried to engage him in conversation to maybe find out a bit more about him but he politely resisted my gambits and left the shop. The next time he came in I tried again, and the next. It wasn’t until about his fourth visit to the shop that his social defences went down and he accepted the offer of a cup of coffee (a courtesy extended to all regular customers) and stayed for a chat. It soon became obvious that we had quite a lot in common. He was a jazz enthusiast who also enjoyed the funkier end of the music spectrum; he was literate and much given to obscure biblical and Shakespearean quotations and he had a positively evil sense of humour. Over the next few months we became fast friends.

I discovered that John had been a professional animator for the Richard Williams studio but was currently attempting to make a living purely by playing jazz. As any one who has ever tried this knows, no matter how good you are and how much you work it is almost impossible to make a decent living without resorting to day jobs as well. At this time John was pursuing another strand of his life – a love of alcohol – by working as wine salesman during the day. This involved visiting potential clients by pre-arranged appointment and armed with a case of samples, then persuading said potential client to purchase cases of the stuff. The basic salary for this was small but the possible commission was quite good. I offered to become a  client and arranged for a couple of my friends to be present for John’s visit to my flat, thus theoretically expanding his putative earnings.

John arrived at the appointed hour and I introduced him to my friends. The wine glasses were enthusiastically produced and the first bottle was offered up for tasting. John requested a glass for himself as well, so that he could “talk us through them”. There were twelve different bottles and we tried them all over the next two hours, successfully making a very large dent in John’s samples. The fact was that we none of us had sufficient disposable income at that time to buy a whole case of wine each. Never the less, even as John assured us somewhat alcoholically that it was not a problem, our collective guilt kicked in and my friends and I scraped together enough money to buy one case (the cheapest on offer) between us. John never actually said that this was the norm for his sales ventures but soon after that his career as a peripatetic vintner faded quietly away.

To be continued...