Tuesday, August 17, 2010
Originally published by altsounds.com January 23rd 2010
Finding a path in life is a challenge that greets us all during our teens. Some people at high school already have their entire career mapped out before them, be that through parental pressure to perform or the unstoppable driving force of a passion. I was one of the lucky kids that always knew what he wanted to after leaving school – I wanted to be in a band. Actually I was already in a band, but I wanted to be in a band that people liked, a band that would pay the bills.
I was disinterested in school and treated it as an opportunity to amuse myself with foolish pranks and pushing the boundaries of polite behaviour. I was never violent or abusive, but my god I was a cheeky little beggar. I spent so much time in the headmaster’s office I could still describe it to you in great detail, but I won’t because, well, what do you care? By the time I had reached fifteen those that must be obeyed at my school grew tired of writing letters home to my parents and took to ringing my dad at work each time I committed what they saw as an outage against the establishment. I’m not going to labour the point, but I was in trouble so often that the school printed up a special version of the homework diary for me and my friends that contained five times as much space for teachers comments as any other kid’s homework diary.
Why did I need GCSEs? I knew where my life was heading [for the stage] and audiences at concerts are not known for caring about how academically advanced performers are. Nobody ever minced out of a Led Zeppelin show because they found out Jimmy Page failed Geography. There was nobody in any of the bands I loved who were propelled to rock and roll stardom by a healthy set of exam results when they were sixteen years old. It could be said that Toni Iommi’s failings in metal work directly led to him becoming a guitar legend.
My parents didn’t exactly have faith in my career plan; my dad photocopied a few of the more choice comments from my school reports and blew up them up to poster size and decorated my room with them. As a sort of compromise I agreed I’d do the right thing with regards to a career and went to see one of the most curious creatures to be found lurking (usually at the back of the library) in any high school – the careers teacher. I had dealings with this chap before when he came to speak to us in a P.S.E lesson (personal and social education, what were they thinking) and started his presentation by drawing a big sad face on the blackboard and telling the class that there was no such thing as a perfect job. I think that may have been the moment I tuned out and started picking album covers in my head, for imaginary records that I was yet to record. The appointment I had with the careers teacher didn’t start much better - the first question I was asked was what I wanted to do for a living. The answer was simple, so I told him I wanted to be in a band.
“No really, what do you want to do?”
“I want to be in a band.”
“No really, what do you want to do?”
“I want to be in a band.”
“Okay, enough of the jokes, what do you want to do as a career, to put a roof over your head and food on the table?”
“I want to be in a band.”
I’ll cease the dialogue there, but as I’m sure you can imagine this went on for a good while. As an outcome of this meeting and for reasons I’ll never fully understand a year later I found myself at Suffolk College studying to be a nurse. Something I need to make clear at this point is that I was studying to be a nurse, I wasn’t on a nursing course; they don’t let you join a nursing course if you leave school with no grades. I was on a course before the course you do to become a nurse, that’s how uncool this course was. And there were no music modules.
My old band (Nice) were still rumbling along but I was getting increasingly frustrated at their lack of interest in getting a proper recording done in a real studio (as apposed to recording ourselves live through the church PA system). The childlike magic of the early years of this band was gone; I was starting to come to terms with the fact that this probably wasn’t the band that would propel me to stardom. The basslines given to me to play were getting needlessly complex and gradually the entire band was turning into a sort of Led Zeppelin homage. I love Led Zeppelin but I was under no illusion that we were lacking somewhat in ability compared to Robert Plant et all. To summarise the situation I was ‘looking for other opportunities’.
The bus journey to college was over an hour long despite the fact Ipswich (location of Suffolk College) was just fifteen miles away from my parent’s house in Wickham Market. I was accompanied on this epic journey by my mate Hester who was attending college to study terrorism, or possibly tourism. Time between lessons was spent on a large and wide flight of steps underneath the college library called the ‘smoking steps’. As was appropriate behaviour for the location I would spend my time there smoking. Smokers were nearly as unpopular back then in 1993 as they are now, and when large groups of smokers come together some social barriers that normally form obstacles between people are broken down. Smokers will always chat with other smokers; it’s a sort of siege mentality. Hester didn’t smoke but some of the friends on her course did so she was often on the smoking steps.
I soon struck up a friendship with a couple of her friends, a young punk called Jonny and a young metaller called Barry. For the first few weeks I knew them, Jonny and Barry always seemed to be drunk, even at 10am they’d be giggling and saying ridiculous things and falling over. My lessons were dull and despite the fact college suited me better than school I was still studying for a course I had no interest in actually passing, so Barry and Jonny provided much needed light relief. By this time my disinterest was less to do with a surety that I would make my money through music, and more to do with the wistful melancholy that affects almost all teenagers. You know the kind of thing I mean; you have no rent to pay, your parents still buy your food and clothes and you have more disposable income than you’ll have for the next ten years and yet the world still seems a dark place.
Barry and Jonny also made the dull drudge of the daily bus journey far more entertaining as they would forever either be too drunk to carry a conversation or engaged in trying to set fire to each others trousers. On one memorable occasion Barry branded Jonny with a super heated safety pin. Jonny started seeing a young punk girl called Penny, who was a good friend of mine on my course and it was on visits to Penny’s student flat that I met my future wife Emma. One day Jonny told me he’d started a punk band with a bloke called Graham. Jonny told me had a drum kit and bragged that Graham knew three ‘para cords’. Being curious about what a para cord was I agreed to meet Graham.
Graham was older than Jonny and I, and at the time the fact he was twenty six years old made him seem ancient to us, like some sort of safety pinned old punk sage. Graham spent his days as a gentleman of leisure, hanging out with a large group of punks in the central square in Ipswich Town Centre, an area known as Cornhill. This quite terrifying group of scruffy punks sat, laid and stood on the benches drinking cider smoking cigarettes and generally terrifying the hell out of the god fearing grey masses that were the Ipswich shoppers. Considering I was a tall, skinny, fluffy haired, indie kid from the sticks who hadn’t even really heard any punk let alone actually met a punk - I was terrified.
Jonny confidently marched into the midst of the throng but I held back, to me the scene looked like someone was trying to remake Mad Max with a budget of a tenner and a two litre cider bottle. Jonny introduced me to Graham who complimented me on the copy of ‘Marquee Moon’ by Television that I was clutching under my arm. I sat chatting with Graham and Jonny about music as the drunken punks wheeled around us, to a passer by it probably looked like I was being held hostage. Most of the punks I met on that day are dead now, mostly through what could euphemistically be called "misadventure". These weren’t the type of punks I would come to know and love – and indeed include myself in their number – in the years that followed. These were not folk led by ethics and a passion for self expression and boundless creativity. These were self destructive alcoholics hell bent on annihilation through any means possible. Graham and Jonny stood out from this crowd nearly as sorely as I did. When one of the annihilated pissed on my college bag in full view of an astonished public I nearly gave up on Graham and Jonny and bailed. By ‘annihilated I mean drunk/ drugged, not that the pisser was a member of the thrash metal band ‘The Annihilated’ (who are also from Ipswich).
A week later I was stood in the garage of Jonny’s parent’s house in Woodbridge watching Jonny play drums in a truly unique way while Graham attacked his guitar like it had wronged him in some way. The musical upbringing being in Nice had taught me to follow a guitarist playing deliberately difficult chord shapes but after watching Graham play for a few minutes I noticed that his hand was locked in one position, I assumed this was his "para cord". Strangely it looked exactly the same as a power chord. In Nice I was always under pressure to play the most technical and complex basslines possible otherwise I’d likely get yelled at. I’ve got a recording somewhere of guitarist Matt yelling at me for dropping a note in a riff so complex it may have contained the answer to life the universe and everything. With this in mind I watched what Graham was playing for a moment then let rip with a bass line that swung up and down the fret board so fast it looked like my fingers were trying to escape. I watched Graham and Jonny for a reaction but they were too busy glancing sacred and wide eyed at each to offer me any verdict on my playing. I would say the song ended, but it would be more accurate to say it fell to its knees and collapsed forward breaking its nose on the garage floor; the kindest thing was to put it out of its misery and stop playing. Graham was the first to speak,
“You can join the band, just don’t play any more of that jazzy shit.”
And I didn’t, not for years. It was a strange feeling being admitted into Junk Culture, it was clear that neither Graham or Jonny could actually play, but for the first time ever I felt I was in a band with true peers, a band where I could play what I wanted without being criticised, belittled and shouted down.
When Jonny said he had a drum kit I never thought to enquire as to whether he could actually play it. In a band biography Graham referred to Jonny’s drumming as ‘biscuit tin banging’ and claimed the only reason they had let me join the band was that I had access to a car. I didn’t care, I had a new band. My old band was less impressed and singer Dan rang me one evening to formally "sack" me. I was surprised but not entirely disappointed. In a snap of cold spite I told my new girlfriend (Emma) that Nice would never do anything without me in the band to organise them. I was right; they limped on for a while longer but never played live or recorded ever again. I felt like the universe was clearly leading me in a new direction, it was the death of one band but the conception of another. Ladies and gentlemen, this was the birth of Junk Culture.