Postcards From America
the truth about touring
What's a rock and roll tour really like. Find out from these postcards from America scribbled by our own Andy Duncan who was excused homework long enough to play drums for Difford and Tilbrook on their recent USA tour. Rock stars in their underpants?? Bah! This is true life...
July 22nd Ottawa: A kind of high rise Basingstoke. Very quiet. Yesterday Larry (Tolfree, drummer extraordinaire, instantly christened 'Moosehead' after his animated dismissal of the similarly named local brew) and myself got excited about seeing a train go by. Mind you it was your fully kosher Canadian Pacific steam engine. The big black job with the cow catcher on the front.
Then we all (12) rent bikes and go cycling. A good way to spot potential tour skinflints as some struggle with their single gear, economy boneshakers while more apparently extravagant realists swish effortlessly along on the expensive ten-speed racing models. Glenn (Tilbrook, the Charlie Parker of the improvised sandwich, and occasional musician) is also out to make a name for himself as a documentary film-maker as he wobbles precariously along attempting to capture our collectively rotating knees for posterity on his portable video.
July 23rd: The initial gig and our first brush with reality. The band's recently acquired, state-of-the-art, Meyer PA system has been caught up in the Summer's first dock strike and is currently languishing in Scotland. We are left at the mercy of each venue's in-house system. So Larry and I show up at Barrymore's (a small version of the Lyceum) ready to soundcheck, only to discover Paul (Lilly, tour manager, our Captain Mainwairing figure) trying to assemble the various component parts of the club's PA into some sort of working order. As the solder fizzes, Lasmo and I retreat to the snooker hall next door.
Four frames later the gear is pronounced usable and, short of time now, we soundcheck until they let the doors open. Since there isn't enough room to change at the gig it's all back to the hotel and on with the stage gear. Massed in the lobby, the blend of outrageous clobber and plastic bags looks very unlikely. Canadian fans are very outward going. They are perfectly happy to listen to a largely unfamiliar set of songs and enthusiastically acknowledge any point of interest or moment of excitement.
For a band making its first public appearance this is most gratifying. We might be a bit nervous but onstage there's plenty of energy and beaming faces all round. After the show morale is high as gaffs made and cues missed are gleefully exploited for every last laugh.
July 25th Toronto: Already the set is going through something of a metamorphosis. The running order is slowly sorting itself out as are the songs that don't seem to translate to live performance. With this in mind we spend the afternoon rehearsing 'Wagon Train', thus far an unknown quantity.
The El Mocambo is like an upstairs 100 Club with the stage halfway down the side of a long, narrow room which makes performing to the audience very tricky. Most of them are spread out on either side of us. A swift calculation concludes that I (and my Jerry Lewis beach/stage wear) can be clearly seen by as many as 20 people, which probably explains why we are going down so well.
The aprés gig scenario in the dressing room is beginning to follow a strange pattern. Local fans approach Glenn or Chris (Difford, also known as 'Mr Style' for the elegance of his floral patterned, curtain-material suit, which is protected from dribbles by a small towel tucked in around the throat). After a few, perfunctory compliments they invariably explain that they too are songwriters. Producing cassettes and, in some cases, photos and biographies, they press them into G or C's slightly bewildered palms.
Aug 1st New York: If Canadians are appreciative, Americans are positively hysterical. At last night's opening gig at the Ritz (a rectangular Hammersmith Palais) the crowd noise was so deafening that the count-ins had to be visual rather than aural.
The set has now slotted together with 'The Apple Tree' placed early on — a difficult song for the audience to assimilate. Pulling it off is vital to the lads if they are going to lay the spectre of Squeeze to rest. So far only a minimum of basket-weavers have been spotted trying to dance to this extremely slow and serious ditty. At least it prevents them sticking their heads into the bass bins all night.
Aug 2nd New York: Today we drive with a cabbie who was a dead ringer for the acid casualty in 'Taxi'. As we hurtled toward a crossroads with green lights in our favour, a pedestrian wanders into the road with suicidal nonchalance. Calmly our driver reaches for his radio microphone. He speaks. From a loudspeaker concealed under the bonnet his voice booms 'GET OUT OF THE WAY'.
The wanderer almost has a heart attack and leaps backwards to safety as he looks up, down and all around trying to work out exactly where the warning has come from.
Later we encounter a gaggle of people attempting unsuccessfully to hail taxis. 'THERE ARE NO CABS' is the sonorous advice. More head twisting and stunned looks. Fabulous.
Aug 7th Boston: Back to earth with a crunch. After the 24-hour-a-day lunacy of New York (not even going onstage 'til one in the morning, etc) Boston promised to be a rest cure in Bournemouth. I should have known better. During the soundcheck my Simmons SDS7 starts going berserk all on its own, lighting up like New Year's Eve and making some very strange noises. After much head scratching we discover the electricity supply to the entire block is some 12V less than it should be, so the Simmons isn't getting enough power to be triggered properly. Since it is vital to at least five songs, this is something of a potential handicap. Worse is rapidly to follow as Glenn's voice, very sore after six consecutive nights at the Ritz, goes completely during the soundcheck. We are forced to postpone the gig, one of three at the Paradise theatre, until later in the week. This at least buys time in which to solve the power supply problem.
Aug 8th Boston: With the aid of a voltage booster the Simmons is again firing on all cylinders and Glenn's voice, though still below par, will survive the gig. So he assures everyone, though not before instructing Jane (Edwards, vocals, keyboards and part time sheep rustler) to take the lead during one taxing vocal excursion, and for Lyndon (Connah, keyboards, vocals, a blend of Ali Baba, Linda MacCartney and Danny Kaye) also to be ready to help out.
Everything is fine as we plunge into the fourth song. I glance across at the Simmons rack. Catastrophe. It's doing its little nut again and there's no time to sort it out. Sure enough the dramatic segue into the next song, 'The Apple Tree' is ruined as the bowel-moving thunder of the bass tabla sound that I've programmed is replaced by a ping pong ball dropped onto a table.
With my customary cool I nut the offending pad.
Glenn takes a vote from the audience. Do they want us to busk this song as best as we can or shall we forget it and move on? Busk it they say. Great. Thank you. I end up whacking a floor tom whilst Lasmo taps a beer bottle with a stick, simulating an off-beat xylophone note, you understand.
Aug 17th San Francisco: Electric drums, I shit 'em! Two minutes before we're due onstage the Simmons — having been perfectly normal during the soundcheck — has done it again. This time the voltage is not at fault. Frantically Larry and I rearrange the Simmons' parts for substitute instruments. "Play 'The Apple Tree' on an empty beer bottle," I say, "and do it with the conga-tuning spanner." Little do I realise that this leaves the lad with two bottles to choose from, one empty, one full. In the heat of the moment, and faced with this tricky decision, he chooses the wrong one. Instead of a resounding 'ping' he produces a dull plunk, and manages to shower both himself and most of the gear with half a pint of Heineken.
Aug 17th Los Angeles: By now we've discovered that a sudden surge of power in Boston scrambled the Simmons' memory and wiped the first 49 programs, which contained, of course, all my carefully created sounds. So I spend all day at the gig re-programming. This lost tourist time is later justified as we provoke the best reaction G&C have ever enjoyed in LA — so they tell us. This helps us through the post-gig bullshit where total strangers come sliding over and tell you how wonderful it was, even though you both know that a) they don't mean it and b) they wouldn't know a good gig if the fab four got back together and played in their front room.
Aug 18th: And the last night of the tour. I surrender to a long held impulse to noisily accompany G&C on their duo version of 'Messed Around', get walloped by Lyndon's huge dummy sledgehammer, miss the free nosh at Shep's Mexican restaurant, get woken by drunken revellers at five in the morning, and am dumped unceremoniously in the pool. Later today a nice twelve hour flight home and in September a British tour. See you there.
Feature by Andy Duncan
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