TRUTH WILL OUT
Music Biz Memoirs
1. The PA Company
I’ve never much liked talking about the famous people I’ve met, as doing so sounds so much like name-dropping. That practice seems to me to be one inadequate ego feeding off his encounter with another, the only difference being (in many cases) that the “name” has channelled his inadequacy into an ambition to be esteemed by others. But Luke O’Farrell, newshound and avid media-watcher, has urged me to write about my adventures in the music business, for general amusement if nothing else. One might suppose that “amusement conquers all” since so much time and energy are spent chasing it. The entertainment industry always does well when times are hard and people need to forget their struggles for a few moments. In The Tyranny of Ambiguity I wrote that if the energy put into music by countless young bands was directed into something more useful, the world might be better for it. Now it’s become obvious that if they applied the values of the music business they so admire the world would be made much worse.
My first job was as a maintenance engineer for a PA hire company in Shepherd’s Bush. I had a “junior” under me, a young black who ended up burgling the place with his mates and trying to pin it on me, and a night-watchman (required for insurance purposes) who used to phone in to his HQ from home instead of from the premises. The company was constantly on the verge of bankruptcy and if you were there early in the morning you could sometimes hear Underground maintenance crews walking along one of the tracks below. It had a large warehouse containing a vibraphone left behind and apparently forgotten by Gong and a rehearsal facility. I still have a mains extension board left behind by the Darts. Also using the rehearsal room was one of the first celebrated transexuals, Wayne County (accompanied by the Electric Chairs) who was referred to with great merriment by the managers and music biz hustlers in the office upstairs as “he-stroke-she-stroke-it.”
Eager to supplement my inadequate income I moved down my Hammond C3, the adage being that in Hull it was easy to find somewhere to live but hard to get a job, while in London getting a job was easy but the major problem was finding a place to live, never mind somewhere you could also park a C3. The plan was that the C3 would be stored in the warehouse and installed in the rehearsal room when required, hired to the musos, and myself and the company would split the proceeds.
The C3 might have been an attraction because bookings for the rehearsal room increased, and Jimmy Pursey would arrive in a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce. We learned that the Roller was provided by his music label at his insistence. Sham 69 booked the C3, and as I was tinkling around on it after their rehearsal one day, one of them started asking me if I’d considered joining a band. I was no slouch as a keyboard player then, and had been in a couple of bands, but the flaw that has so often let me down (or, looking at it another way, helped me avoid a lot of trouble with women) is the failure to take certain kinds of hints. Anyway, in the back of my mind was the thought that here was Sham 69, at the forefront of the so-called New Wave “punk revolution” and the Hammond C3 was famously the instrument of the Old Wave, the “boring old farts” the likes of Sham 69 were supposedly rebelling against. Imagine my surprise therefore when shortly afterwards Sham 69 appeared on Top of the Pops with a keyboard player sat behind a Hammond C3. If I’d had an eye for the main chance, which, for better or worse, is not my character, perhaps I could now be able to say that I had once been on Top of the Pops!
One of the people who joined the company had formerly been a roadie for John Martyn. Said ex-roadie reported how he had reached the end of his tether after having almost been thrown out of an upper storey hotel window by John Martyn in a drunken rage. He had taken up this job for a quieter life, bringing his contacts with him. Because of this association, I found myself being called out to take care of some technical problems at the studio where Martyn was recording. I remember telling the studio staff how much I’d love to play with the massive diesel backup generator situated outside, and chatting with Martyn as he tucked into a plate of sandwiches in the recreation area, before he reminded me about needing to get on with the job I’d actually been called over to do. Most of the problems revolved around a Roland Space Echo which, if you know John Martyn’s style, was pretty essential to the operation.
The problems were easily remedied with spare tapes and a soldering iron and a few weeks later I was called upon to deliver and install a rehearsal rig in a remote farmhouse deep in the Home Counties. The location was eventually found (a stop had to be made part-way, where I was told its precise location, this being semi-secret). The rig was set up, with the mixer on a dais and power to spare. Here I was given my first line of cocaine and what with more conventional recreational substances going around, it wasn’t difficult to find excuses to linger and make fine adjustments to the sound system.
Eventually I got the message that they could cope with any further tweaking themselves, and fulsome farewells were made at the door as I headed back to the now empty van. When I started up and tried to move off however, I discovered that the intervening rain had turned the patch on which I’d parked to mud, and there was nothing for it but to go back, interrupt the party and ask for a push. All came out, with Martyn and the others heaving strenuously at the back of the van until finally I was able to get off, waving goodbye for a second time through the window of the cab. The long drive back to London passed in a blur – I was as high as a kite.
One time a band’s crew just returned from an overseas tour called at the company premises and we all retired to the pub around the corner to catch up on the gossip and hear how it went. Sitting together at a table, one of the roadies stood up and said “I’m just going to the toilet now, alright?” then disappeared as announced. Immediately one of the other road crew launched into a tirade about how he had been doing this throughout the entire tour, thoroughly getting on everyone’s tits. Stories abounded of the stresses and strains of touring, and how often the entire wages of many of the crew would be spent in advance on the coke consumed during the tour. My dabbling with the white powder was always very sporadic, and the offer of a line was much more often refused than accepted. I’ve always thought it over-rated.
The real oddity about the roadie’s irritating announcements was that no-one had thought to take him to one side and impress on him how annoying his habit was. But roadies, like studio owners, are a breed apart. The “backline roadies” to the big names can sometimes be nothing more than valets by another name. I never did tour, although I came close to it a couple of times, and perhaps it’s just as well.
Once everyone at the company was roped in to assist with a gig by a band, associated with the company in some way, that had recently got a contract. A sizeable chunk of the advance had been spent on a new Yamaha CS80, an all-singing, all-dancing early synth which took about four people to lift. I was there in the role of roadie, and the joke going round the crew just then was of fitting musicians into flight cases with a tube for various substances going in and a jack socket for the output. Then they could just be wheeled onto the stage and plugged in. I thought this a hilarious concept. After the event the manager decided we should all go for a meal in a restaurant to celebrate the successful gig and the band’s promising future. In the middle of the meal I made the mistake of sharing the joke about muso’s in flight cases with everyone, thus raising the consternation of the crew – for divulging an in-joke to the out-group – and the musicians, who failed to see the funny side of being regarded as just another piece of equipment.
Apocryphal stories circulated of how backline roadies had sometimes stood in for a band. Such roadies are often musicians themselves, being required to maintain and tune guitars and so forth, and it had apparently occurred that once set up at a venue, the band had retired somewhere to pass the time between the sound check and the start of the gig, only to return early to find the backline roadies playing the set to an empty hall. Even, a heresy of heresies, when some member of a big-name band had gone overboard on drink or drugs before the gig, that his place had been filled by the backline roadie, who hung back in the shadows in the hope that no-one in the audience would notice.
One memorable figure around at this time (it could have been his band returning from the tour mentioned above, but I’m hazy about this) was John Otway. An amusing tale going round the company related how Otway had been playing a gig in his home town and, showing off as the returning prodigal son, had cast his microphone into the crowd as a stunt. When he spooled in the cable so he could resume singing however, it was discovered that some smart alec in the audience had unlatched the XLR connector and pocketed the microphone. Our company billed him for the missing SM58.
Otway has been dubbed the Patron Saint of Losers by the music press, and has confessed to being harried by a jinx. This is certainly consistent with my experience, when I managed to upstage him at the climax of his UK tour. If I remember correctly it was at the then well known venue of the Finsbury Park Odeon. Always eager for more business, our MD had got the deal for providing the PA for it, but only about a week before the actual night. The main problem with this arrangement was that we just didn’t have a rig of sufficient size available right then. By the time the specifications were drawn up and the components delivered, I had just three days to build it.
We were okay for amplifiers so the job involved fitting drivers (speakers and horn drivers) into the cabinets, and wiring these and the rack panels which served to route the signals to and from the amps and active crossovers. The arrangement was three-way: bass/mid/top. One side of the rig was nicely done, to my usual high standard of wiring, but as the hours ticked by, working all night to have it finished, there became simply no time to do a careful job, and the second side of the rig was all but thrown together.
Come the night, with my hands sore from screwing in drivers and the backs of cabinets, the rig was delivered to the venue in a 7.5-tonner and we retired to a nearby Wimpy Bar for refreshment. I can’t remember who did the sound checks, but by the time we returned Otway’s gig was well underway and I found myself beside the front of house console. Some punter, establishing that I was with the crew, pointed out that the left side of the rig didn’t sound right. I turned on my ears and – bloody hell! – there was no left mid at all. I might have mentioned it to the bod behind the sound desk but if I did, he just shrugged his shoulders. Then, with complete absence of judgement following 36 hours without sleep, I headed for the wings to sort out the problem, ending up clambering behind the left-hand stack. Behind the mass of cabinets I was out of sight of the audience but I had to emerge in full view when I had to trace leads and actually climb right in front of the stack to check whether a particular driver was working. Eventually I located a suspect shorting cable, one that I stress had nothing to do with me, and separated the XLR link to have the mid burst back to life literally seconds before the closing chord of the set.