Voltarol - related music

Monday, 14 March 2011

John McCartney – the animated bassist Part Three

Further doings in the Gig Shop

The story of the Gig Shop is a saga in its own right so I won’t go into that right now, but some details are relevant to these tales of John. Within about a year of the shop’s opening it was doing very well and the time had come to find bigger premises. I rented a shop on the High Street and soon had a young manager (Colin) working for me full time, as well as regular part time assistance from – amongst others – John McCartney.

By this time, John and I were beginning to spend a lot of time together out of shop hours. At the end of most working days we would repair to our pub of choice (generally The Metropolitan Tavern in Windsor Street) for a pint or two before going home. With our partners we would also meet at each other’s homes for dinner at the weekends (if neither of us had a gig). This routine was expanded for a while when my friend Tom came to work at the shop. His home was added to the Saturday night roster and his wife, Jean, was soon also providing regular meals for what became known briefly as The Ranting Society.

John’s cartooning skills were soon employed for Gig Shop advertising. Between us we created a character called ‘Doctor Phelger’, whom I had pitched to John as the sort of spurious medical man that one might find depicted on a Victorian Patent Medicine label. The good doctor sported a soup-strainer moustache and a monocle, and made pronouncements that contained such phrases as ‘…earnestly commends to your attention…’ and ‘…begs to inform you of the great virtues of…’ One of his slogans was “A superior device at a gentlemanly price”. Our advertising style was soon drawing the attention of other businesses and we were commissioned to design a tee-shirt for Aria guitars, and a Christmas card for Custom Sound Amplification, both of which tasks we leapt at.
One of our less bizarre advertisements...
This one however is at the other end of the scale...

The Christmas card was based on a joke that I had first heard told by the late Matt McGinn and depicted Santa with his sleigh and reindeer in severe disarray on top of a collapsed public convenience which they have obviously just flown into at high speed. The door of one of the WCs has fallen open to reveal an outraged figure seated upon the throne with his trousers round his ankles (this was a very fine caricature of Custom Sound’s MD). The vista of a high street stretches beyond Santa (whose sleigh bears many ‘presents’ with the Custom Sound logo on them), and you can just make out that one of the shops is called ‘Schmidt’s House of Music’. A manic Santa is berating a severely concussed Rudolph with the words “You fool! I said ‘Land on the SCHMIDT House!’” Well, it made us laugh…Alas I no longer have a copy but if anyone out there does then I would love to see it!

The tee-shirt was commissioned by Pete Tullet, the MD of Gigsville, which was then the UK distributor of Aria guitars. Pete was particularly enthusiastic about the (then) new Aria SB1000 series basses. It was his firm belief that they would topple the Fender Precision bass from its best-seller position, and referred to the aforementioned instruments as ‘the dinosaurs of the electric bass world’. We came up with an image and text that he liked and the shirts were duly printed and distributed. We are still waiting for the demise of the dinosaur although to be fair, the SB1000 was a good design and is still being made. Sadly, the tee-shirts are not.
I found this one in the loft. I had to wash it a few times but it's not in bad condition given that it's 28 years old.
Actually, now I come to think about it, our advertising style may not have been as good as we thought. All three businesses that used us are now defunct!

There was a Council-run music facility not far from the shop, called ‘Unit One’, which provided a recording studio, rehearsal rooms, somewhere to stage gigs, and a basic cafĂ©. This was provided by Youth Services or some such wing of the Council but was actually a pretty vibrant place. This was of course in the time of Punk so the place was positively heaving with bands, many of which were surprisingly good, but a lot of older musicians took advantage of its cheap rates for rehearsals and recording, myself included.

One of the young bands that frequented the place was called The Belairs and two of them – Neil and Anthony - were also customers in the Gig Shop. They affected a clothing style that was reminiscent of a 1950’s home insurance salesman and a musical style that hinted at swing and featured two saxophonists but used one of the newly emergent rhythm boxes ( I think it was manufactured by Electro Harmonix) to provide the ‘swing drums’. They were writing their own songs which were for the most part witty and distinctive, and had just acquired a manager (an equally young out of work actor called Richard Painter), who had no money to put behind them but was prepared to work hard on their behalf.

Neil approached me one day and asked if I would be interested in helping them out a bit by putting some more ‘authentic’ swing guitar into their work, as well as some percussion and some harmonica. He also asked me if I knew of a bass player that might fulfil a similar function for them. The net result is that John and I became members of the band – now renamed The Figaro Club (a band called The Belairs already existed in the US and so the new name was borrowed from a short-lived TV series from 1981) – and set about refashioning ourselves in an approximately youthful image for stage appearances. I went with the 1950’s bit but – as the possessor of a goatee beard - opted for a sort of ‘beatnik’ look, complete with black beret, striped tee-shirt, neckerchief and corduroy trousers. Unfortunately the overall effect was more onion seller than existentialist but I decide that that would do. John dug out a tank top and a tweed suit and tried to do something with his unruly mop of curly hair, We weren’t quite sure what effect he was striving for but the result was rather reminiscent of a younger Colonel Gadaffi  trying to pass himself off as an Englishman.
Left to right: Neil, Voltarol, John and Anthony during the Windsor Street Bed Race
L. to R.: Saxophonist Tim hiding behind saxophonist and vocalist Duncan, Neil, Voltarol and Anthony. Richard Painter can be seen in the shop doorway behind the bandstand, between John and Anthony

Richard the manager worked hard and got the band a lot of exposure. We were quite popular locally and on one occasion did a gig in the street entertaining the crowds that had come watch the annual ‘bed race’ (a bizarre fund-raising event that involved teams of men in drag pushing hospital beds around the town) but were also performing ‘showcase’ gigs at places like ‘The Fridge’ in Brixton. It was at one of these, at a disco in Southall, that I first saw John’s character suddenly transformed for the worse by alcohol. John did not drink during a gig, but immediately after a performance would chuck down two or three beers quite swiftly. On this occasion Anthony had done a rather unfortunate thing and had stopped the band 30 seconds into a song, because he was unhappy with the tempo. He reset the rhythm box and then started us off again. After we had finished our set John hastened to the bar and took a lot of beer on board quite quickly then went and sought out Anthony and positively monstered at him, stabbing his finger into Anthony’s chest, slurring a bitter tirade against the unprofessionalism of restarting a song, and repeatedly calling him a ‘barsa’, which was as close as he could get to pronouncing the word ‘bastard’. We were all somewhat stunned by this but the following day he was his usual amiable self and was quite apologetic.
Promo night at The Fridge - Neil, Voltarol and John. John's slightly distracted look was due to the presence in the audience of his wife Brenda, who was 9 months pregnant with their son James. Mrs Voltarol was also there on standby in case a sudden rush to hospital was required...

The band was soon offered a record deal and one weekend a few months later we all trooped into the famous Jacobs Recording Studio to record a single. Much to my surprise Neil and Anthony shared my taste for the stories of Damon Runyon and had crafted a song between them which was most Runyonesque. It was called ‘Say, That’s a Great Dress You’re Wearing’ and, we all thought, had hit potential. Obviously, whoever it was that had put the money up thought so too and we spent all of that Saturday recording it and another song – the name of which now escapes me – that had been written by one of the saxophonists. We were well pleased with our efforts and left the studio that night with the feeling that we might have something really commercial on our hands and were already speculating about our first major tour. We had completed everything but the lead vocal on ‘Great Dress’ and Neil was due to return to the studio the following day – Sunday – to replace his guide track with the definitive performance. Imagine my reaction when Richard Painter phoned me on Sunday evening to say that Neil had apparently been instructed by God not to continue with the recording and to leave the band. John and I rechristened the band there and then as ‘The Band That Ripped Its Own Head Off and Then Pissed in the Hole’.

To be continued...