Article from Making Music, November 1987
Geoff Nicholls gets disastrous
"Rrring" went the telephone. "Colbert here, do you have any tips for avoiding disasters on stage; and by the way, where's this month's Drumhum?" Well, I couldn't think of any tips offhand, but I did get to recalling some of the piteous situations I've endured behind the kit in a 'career' which with luck has its better moments to come.... Put any two musicians round a pub table and they'll vie all night for the most appalling gig story.
Of course this isn't difficult since almost every gig in Britain (unless you've 'made it') has an even chance of being a disgrace. Derisory money, and you're lucky if you get a half of bitter on the house. This is presumably what makes British bands so tough, inventive and humorous. But I don't applaud the fact that most gigs are run by people who don't give a toss.
The MU are forever pointing out to rock musicians that it's only by solidarity and concerted action that this situation will ever improve. But although I agree in principle, this plea has never had much success. Why? Well try asking gold-prospectors to join a union then share and share alike. So long as the British pop scene is the equivalent of digging for gold, the MU will only get lip service from the majority of star-struck hopefuls and will be treated with contempt by the average gig promoter. He knows there are hundreds of bands who'll eat dirt if the present band won't. (Decent promoters do exist and I salute you.)
The fact that all this is called paying your dues, and that you'll have loads of material for your film script may be small compensation at the time. Like returning early from a desperately needed holiday in order to do a totally insignificant gig in a pub in Reading to find you've been double-booked; and the following night to play an equally poxy gig in Acton, dragging your bass drum in and plonking it down centre 'stage' directly on the spot chosen as a toilet by the landlord's alsatian. Ace guitarist Dave Ellis, whose band I was in at the time of these little teasers, used to take a perverse delight in such adversity, which became known as "horsehair" — as in "horsehair shirt" — Dave's Liverpool drollery for all situations of great discomfort and depression, which were (and are, come to think of it) not at all infrequent.
But is such ignominy necessary? Well it's character-building, lad, and does prepare you to expect the unexpected in a cut-throat business. Musicians — along with stand-up comics perhaps — are traditionally the toughest of entertainers. Actors, for example, loathe musicians as coarse, uncouth and unruly. Generally a fair assessment. Witness the recent debacle between the infantile musos and the puffed-up actors in the West End musical 'Cabaret' (with Toyah in the middle having a good laugh). A classic case if ever I heard one. But while it's just as much a slog to make it as a thespian, acting is generally more genteel. When not working actors are 'resting'. It's not much fun, but at least it's accepted — an actor can't do much without a script and a theatre company. Musicians can't 'rest'. They have to practise, write songs, study computer manuals (!), and get off their bums and form bands. This entails any amount of ruggedness of spirit and bravado, playing in dives to audiences who don't give a monkey's, because they're spoilt for choice. In any case, they don't know any more than the average A&R man that you're the next Terence Trent D'Arby.
But not only does it toughen you up and provide you with anecdotes to stultify your friends, you learn what you can and cannot do. Like you can't drink beer and play drums. OK, some people can, but I'd be more than a little suspicious. I mean some people drink six pints and say they can drive a car — which is bollocks — so how the hell can you do something really tricky like play a drumkit? Yes, I have heard of Keith Moon, and we all occasionally make the mistake of trying it. I learned my lesson on a gig at Edinburgh University (thank God for college gigs). An old mate turned up who likes a bevy, and being a Scottish Union there was a barrel of free beer on hand. Too late I remembered I had to go on and play a fiendishly involved 1½ hour set. I got through, but every minute was like my last.
By the way, on one of the few hot days last summer I turned up for a gig and had a pint of ice-cold lager before going on. Unfortunately I'd been at the dentist all afternoon and was (presumably) pumped full of novocaine. I sat down at the kit and started to shake. It took about 10 minutes of strenuous playing and sweating before I started to feel normal. Has anyone else had this experience?
So it's going to be tough, but that's what produced the laughs and the resilience. A bit like the army. Oh God do I have to go through this? Well, you can always dream up an exception like Steve White, the kid from nowhere who's suddenly touring the world with Style Council and doing drum clinics with Peter Erskine. All right he got lucky, but we all get lucky sometime. The difference is he got lucky young and was good enough to handle it. He'd already been working his butt off for years, practising and listening seriously. Moreover, he's dedicated enough to go on working, and he'll still go through as much heartache as the rest, you can bet.
So, in sum; accept the horsehair and get something positive out of every gig that comes along. Meanwhile, join the MU and fight to make conditions better. And when you get the elbow (everyone has sometime) think of the rubbishing Michael Jackson just got for 'Bad'. Bounce back, and give us all a headache.
Feature by Geoff Nicholls
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