Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Tribute To A Tribute

   Not my usual Truth Seeking subject today, rather something close to my heart that I thought I’d share with my fellow travellers. After 14 years, I’m saying a bitter sweet goodbye to my alter ego (in the form of Roger Daltrey of The Who) and my association with the UK tribute band Who’s Renown. So far as it goes, it’s not unexpected. The individual members of the band have become involved in numerous individual projects in the last 18 months or so (including myself) and it has become harder to get everybody together at the same time to perform any shows. For my own part, The Truth Seeker’s Guide has taken on a life of its own and I hope to spend a lot more time, this year, expanding my horizons and seeing where it leads. In order that the music doesn’t get stale or we look like we’re going through the motions, we’ve unanimously and amicably decided to put the band to bed, as it were!

   For better or worse though, it’s been one hell of a ride and one I’ll find hard to top again in my life. So if you'll indulge me, I'd like to share my story.

   I joined the band in late 1997, thanks to my friend’s husband. Pete Hawkesworth was a bass guitar player, who along with his school mate Mick Bowen (a lead and rhythm guitarist), had performed together in bands since the late 70s. My friend had heard me cat wailing at various karaoke’s during my more hedonistic days and she dropped my name to Pete and Mick who, after a lengthy musical sabbatical, had decided to “put the band back together”!

   Those early days were a riot of practices. We auditioned dozens of drummers, week after week… one chap (who looked like Buddy Holly, glasses and all) turned out to be almost blind, another lad (despite being a brilliant drummer) suffered incredible stage fright and informed us that he could only play on stage if his dad stood at the side of him… we relied on an old Bontempi drum machine for the longest time!!

   Finally, we met John Starling who settled in behind the pots and pans at the back of the stage. The name “Renown” (oddly after a steam engine) stuck after a while and we started playing some local music venues. The gigs were a mix of disinterested drinkers, bar fights and pubs with barbed wire around the windows… no exaggeration! I recall one venue where some nutter with a knife decided to smash all the windows while he waited for the police to come and arrest him.

   On another occasion a huge fight kicked off at the end of the night. It was chaos with glass flying everywhere and me, Pete and John flaying equipment around to keep the fight away from the gear. Mick, who seemed to be on another planet much of the time, sat deadpan, nonchalantly rolling cigarettes at a table. The fight moved toward him and, like the cat and dog fights in the old cartoons, finally engulfed him. After a moment, the fight dispersed revealing Mick with his clothes and hair dishevelled, drinks knocked over, yet still rolling his fags with the same blank look…

   We fought amongst ourselves a lot in the early days. It seemed like the band was always on the brink of ending. There was always something to prove to somebody else. Ego is often the hallmark of musicians, although we’d never admit it. I remember a particularly bad night, when you could cut the atmosphere (amongst the band) with a knife. We were even arguing over the best way to put the gear away at the end! Pete’s bass playing had (unbeknownst to him) been scrutinised all night by a chap at the bar. During our post gig, gear arranging barney, he had shot to the bar to get a drink and the man coolly motioned to him.

“Great stuff mate. Really great stuff.”Pete briefly said cheers, but shot straight back to the stage… clearly wanting to put his penny worth into the tussle. Later, as we were leaving, the landlord said to Pete,
“Do you know who that was that spoke to you earlier?”
“No mate”
“That was Jim Lea, the bass player from Slade! He lives round here.”
“Oh right!”

   The irony was that we’d played a couple of songs by the 70s Glam Rockers during the set! Pete has never lived that one down…

   The other problem was direction. At the time we were a jobbing covers band and the style was always an issue. I had my Prog Rock, Post Punk, Talking Heads, Eno, etc. Mick was dedicated to Merseybeat. John was a dyed in the wool folk and blues man with a love of Rory Gallagher. Pete was an overgrown Mod, obsessed with The Who, who rued the day that synth and New Romanticism had come along and killed his beloved Ska and Two-Tone.
We needed focus and direction.

   We talked about the need for a show… a performance, rather than a string of greatest hits. Every band looks for the edge it can achieve over the others and we wanted something special, yet familiar to the audience, whilst still representative of us. The decision took a bizarre route though. Pete wanted us to look at Live At Leeds – the infamous live gig by The Who. What got our attention was how songs from Tommy (built around orchestral arrangements and heavy synth) had been stripped down to the core instruments. The Who had subsequently done this with Who Are You, Baba O’Riley, Won’t Get Fooled Again, etc., in other live shows.

   This was only to be the example though… not the source. Laughably, our intention was to overhaul Jeff Wayne’s War Of The Worlds! We’d convinced ourselves that it was a ground-breaking idea! To get the ball rolling, we learned the stripped down Who stuff (all synth, violin and piano sections were played on guitar and blues harp) and played it endlessly at gigs.
More and more, The Who took over the sets and always got a good response from the crowds. We didn’t realise it but we had our ‘hook’.
Out of the blue, we had a call from a musician who had seen us recently and wanted us to play at an event in Burton On Trent. The catch was to play only The Who and (ahem) ‘dress like them’….

   We were billed as a tribute band. This hadn’t even remotely occurred to us. We weren’t fans of the term, simply because of the implications: being (somewhere) like the real thing. We weren’t. We were just us doing “our own take on things”. The costumes were made in a few days. Cheap and shitty, fake beards, wigs and moustaches were brought from the fancy dress shop, we practiced some poses…. It was a riot! Like Osama Bin Laden meets the Carry On films. John’s wig kept falling off whilst drumming, half of Mick’s moustache fell off (and the other wouldn’t shift at all)… We looked like a bunch of first class idiots!

   We must have done something right musically because the gigs rolled in afterwards, but always as a tribute, so we gratefully went with the flow. Mick and Pete adopted the early Townsend/Entwhistle look (sans hairpiece!), I purchased an expensive real hair wig (a vicarious experience for me, given that I was as bald as a mule by then), vastly improved costumes were made and the “Who’s” moniker was added to “Renown”.We went about three years playing all over the Midlands and surrounding area and things were going good. Unfortunately, good things never last.

   The first problem became something of a recurring one… a la Spinal Tap!... Drummers. John was taking a very early retirement to travel with his wife. Despite no hard feelings, we rapidly found ourselves one man down and the gigs had to stop. We spent almost a year with a drummer called Spence and then a chap named Simon Hassle. We accomplished a lot in the period and really raised the profile of the band, playing at Carmarthen Castle in Wales, Trent Bridge Cricket Grounds in Nottingham, the world famous Cavern Club in Liverpool, to name a few.

   We started to realise that we had another problem and it is something that has never been discussed outside of the band until now. Somebody was trying to undermine us. We had phone calls arranging events  that we’d turn up to and find that we weren’t on the billing. Dates were being changed at the last minute. Accusations were being made about the band (and individual members) and the paranoia was getting to us.We suspected that it may have been fellow bands, certain agents and representatives.

   The threat we mainly posed was not how good (or bad!) we were… rather our independence. AND the fact that the music circuit functions on the principle of monopoly: there can only be one type of something. We collectively managed ourselves, sought no sponsors, 95% of our gigs came via our own hard work and word of mouth, and used only one or two agents on a few occasions. A number of anonymous individuals had all but confirmed this, but it didn’t explain the level of information they had about us personally. There were a number of people on the periphery of the band that also gave us cause for concern.

   Eventually (and this is where I have to be careful), one or two individuals clocked part of what was going on. The band was never really the same after that for a good while. The fun died down, we kept our enemies close and closed ranks. It all sounds very macabre and fanciful, but we had no choice if we were going to continue.I lost a lot of my exuberance with the music game during this time also. Despite the arguments, we had always stuck together and that had gone by the end of the troubles. Many practices and gigs would be hard graft, rarely punctuated by a bit of piss taking or banter. The period saw the departure of Simon Hassle and the recruiting of an excellent drummer called Jason Griffin.

  The period wasn’t all bad though. In terms of performing, we returned several times to The Cavern Club, showcased Tamworth’s  Modrophenia event, performed in York, Sheffield, Leicester, Manchester, followed thousands of mods on scooters down to Skegness for their annual scooter rally, performed on the beach at Southport and the banks of The Thames in London. There are too many to count.

   By 2007, things started to go really pear shaped. This time for different reasons. We had worked bloody relentlessly to overcome the obstacles and I think we succeeded. We had been criticised for not looking like The Who, (myself) for not sounding like Daltrey, for publicising ourselves as a tribute (something forced on us by venues and organisers), Pete for not standing perfectly still and looking bored (he pounced like a graceless gazelle sometimes) and Mick for not jumping around and smashing his guitar up!

   By the end of the year, the proverbial had hit the fan. Jason had the opportunity to join a band on the verge of signing a deal (we never blamed him for taking it), Mick reacquainted himself with his ex (and by extension, his family) and my kidneys decided to blow up in my face! I suffered a lot of problems with my health for the next  12 months, so my role in the band was haphazard. An old school friend, Adrian Sharratt replaced Mick for the duration and Jason was replaced by our first drummer John (who, after his travels, was looking to get back in the saddle). By now, though, the cracks were obvious and Who’s Renown was a shell of its former self. I might be overly anthropomorphising here, but a band is an entity in its own right. Sometimes it needs a little TLC to get better.

   I certainly did anyway! For three bloody months I had to practice sitting down. How can you find your groove if your arse is sat on it?!!
   In time my health returned and so did Mick. The band was in demand again, we played a lot, made connections, started other projects and the nature of the band changed yet again. In form it felt like the early days.
The camaraderie started to come back, we sounded better than we ever did and people no longer seemed to care that we were never going to look like The Who. We even did a couple of gigs dressed as ‘us’! 

 I had the chance to go home and perform in front of the people I’d grown up around at Lichfield Fuse Festival, we even did a mini tour of dates that gave us a holiday on the sun kissed beaches of… England! Actually it was a heat wave summer… just doesn’t sound very exotic.

   2010 sounded the beginning of the end. Now involved in numerous other escapades, our other commitments continually got in the way. Half a dozen high profile gigs a year if we were lucky. I think we all knew that the finishing line was in sight, especially when we were approached to join the Modfest stage at Liverpool’s, annual Mathew Street Festival for the August bank holiday weekend.
350,000 people descending on the birthplace of The Beatles for three days of solid music. In our minds, we knew this would be (for better or worse) our swansong.

   We took the train in the early morning to Liverpool, signed ourselves in at the town hall, received our all-access passes and trundled off down to the stage, nestled beneath the Liver Birds. The city was quiet and we mucked about, took the piss, had a nap, joked a bit, hid our nerves… just like the good old days. There was even a bit of angst and aggression, when it appeared that the opening act was going to do our entire set list! A good omen, in retrospect. I’m not really sure what we were expecting at the time. The band before us had performed to about 700 - 800 people, but this appeared miniscule when you consider that each of the collective six stages had huge open areas in front of them. We were escorted backstage to the dressing room porta-cabins, so we couldn’t see in front of the stage and had no idea what awaited us. Would we still have the 800? A few more? A lot less?

   Security came and lead us up the covered side gantry to the stage. The events co-ordinator patted our backs and said, “Good luck guys!”

   Walking onto the stage was singularly the most surreal experience. All I could see was people, as far away as could be seen, left, right and into the distance. All looking at me with my stupid wig and stupid tassels. I looked at John who looked like Casper the friendly ghost. Pete fiddled with his bass and pretended not to notice: The Iceman Cometh! Mick smirked like a kid in the candy store!

   My recollection of the next 45 minutes is vague. I know I jumped and swung the mike with everything I had. I shook like a leaf, but sang every note like my dying breath.

 I cannot express in words what it was like. I knew that all the years had been worth it. I was hugely proud of myself and my mates and it was quite simply the greatest day of my life to that point….

   Nobody said much afterwards. You know that warm content feeling you get sometimes… something like that anyway.

   For posterity I asked the co-ordinator to radio up and get the head count. Our audience was in excess of 20,000 people. You know something… people have laughed when we’ve told them that. They don’t believe it or say it’s nothing compared to O2 or Wembley! Life is like that. Experience is singular and exclusive. The experience is always our own to define. I know that there is something greater in that notion that transcends being on a stage or whatever, I'm just not entirely sure what though right now…

After that, we did a few more gigs about the place. You know how it is! Trying to recapture the glory... But looking back is never a constructive emotional state.
Today I’ll allow myself a quiet one. After all, 14 years is a long time.

And then tomorrow… who knows. Onwards and upwards!

Thanks for taking the time to read and support my posts. Wherever you are today, I hope you have a good one my friends.

The Truth Seeker's Guide


Big Jim Beam said...

Sad news bud. You were a great band. I had a top day watching you in Liverpool. Thanks for sharing your story.
Keep smiling!

The Truth Seeker's Guide said...

Many thanks Jim.
All The Best.
Carl (The 'Guide)

captron52 said...

IM sure it was a truly remarkable run for you and the band! Just think of all those memories you will be able to share with those you love. The best to you and yours now and forever!

The Truth Seeker's Guide said...

I really appreciate the comments Cap, especially at the moment.
Peace my friend.
Carl (The 'Guide)

Andrew Johnson said...

A great read and a great overview of your Rock 'n' Roll Ride of Renown!

Here's to the future!

Eve said...

What a fantastic story! I love the Who...what great memories you have. To play in front of 20,000 people?! How exciting is that! Hope your health is good these days. You should do a book of all your experiences!

The Truth Seeker's Guide said...

Many thanks, Andrew, for dropping by.
All the best!
Carl (The 'Guide)

The Truth Seeker's Guide said...

Thank you Eve.
It was a great experience and you're right...
I should pen a book!
My kidneys are fine now!!!!
Thanks for the kind comments.
Carl (The 'Guide)