Song for the Sideman
Touring With Nik Kershaw
Drummer Mark Price tells what it's really like to be up there on stage. Did anyone say terrifying?
...in which we take the word 'musician' and apply 'job' to it. We study the pros and cons of being a skilled player plying your trade, and wonder what it's really like having 5,000 people screaming at you.
Hands up, which one has the career? The band as a 'unit' or you as a musician?
The common master plan is for the group to find success under its own steam and with self-penned material, so taking the unavoidably massive stardom manfully in its stride. In a perfect world - the one with the money and the women - this would be so.
However, luck is lumpy, and not everybody makes it. The 'traditional' alternative of selling your skills to back someone else drags up grim pictures of Butlins, redcoats and March of the Mods. It's not all shiny coats and turgid covers, thankfully. There are alternatives which will get you on the road and behind a name. Hark now to one man's story, and see how it changed his life....
Towards the end of 1983 drummer Mark Price departed his folding band, shrugged a shoulder, bought a Simmons and began studying the small ads. "Not many people had a Simmons at the time, and I knew with that at least I could get some work."
What he actually got was the chance for a manager's audition, picked up through the classifieds. He passed, and was handed a cassette by an upcoming singer-songwriter who had just finished his first album. "The songs were all different and catchy, with great melodies and were really well arranged. It was brilliant." It was also Nik Kershaw, a man who needed a band.
Note the use of 'manager's audition'. Nik Kershaw didn't attend rehearsals until the third day. (a) He was off doing the "Wouldn't It Be Good" video and (b) it's unfair to judge anyone as worthy for your backing band until they've had at least a couple of days to learn and practice the material. S'fair.
Not that the boss wasn't deadsure what he wanted when he did turn up. Nik Kershaw made several pertinent observations, and elected to look for a different keyboard player and guitarist. So there they were, four total strangers in a small room with a man to back and an album to mimic.
"It is a bit strange to begin with," recalled Mark, as the browned trousers flicked across his memory. "When you're with your mates you can say, 'don't do that, it's awful', but with strangers you have to feel your way slowly.
"At least we all knew it had to be like it was on the tape. I think we were all trying to impress at first, but the best way to impress is to play what you're given... immaculately.
"If you're serious about something, you do it properly. I didn't even have a practice kit at home, hut I worked out the songs before rehearsals by playing in mid air. I picked a track, worked out the sticking and tapped my foot on the carpet for the bass drum. I learnt the whole album that way."
Having mastered your new leader's material in the rehearsal room, the next stress on the underwear is the first gig, and if you're behind someone well known, that means people, lots of them, at the Southend Cliffs Pavilion.
What's the biggest audience you'd ever drummed to before this, Mr Price? "Er... 150" And how many were there at the Cliffs "two or three...".
"You worry while you're in the rehearsal studio about getting your bits right, but on the first gig, you go up to another stage of worrying altogether. It is... different. For a start, you don't have to lug your drums around, there's someone to do it for you.
"I can remember being totally amazed at the first gig. You can see the first three or four rows clearly, the rest are dots. It's murder if you know there's someone in the audience and you're trying to find them."
Go on then, what's it really like, the screaming, the encores, the lights....
"Well you don't actually see the lights when they're all around you, it's not like looking at the stage from the front. I suppose our longest set is 1½ to 1¾, hours, but it doesn't seem to last that long.
"Still... we were recently on tour in America and on the first night I'd given it so much welly that my hands were really badly blistered. On the second gig I came off stage with them weeping and bleeding. I think we were on stage for a whole day... but usually it flies by and you enjoy yourself.
"You get confident, start looking at the people instead of thinking about what bit comes next until something goes wrong, then you go back to keeping your wits about you."
Who are your greatest mates on the road? "The band, definitely. You do know the crew, but they travel separately: they're there to set up and break down while you go back to the hotel. Do they get jealous? No, I don't think so, they're professionals, it's their job and they get well paid for it.
"Some of the crew who do guitars and drums are musicians who haven't quite made it, and sometimes that can create jealousy, so maybe it's better if that isn't the case."
Cock-ups are bad enough at the local boozer. How many years do they take off your life at a major event? "Embarrassing moments? ...very bad. The first time we did Wembley was with Elton John, and in the middle of "Drum Talk" the roving cameraman stood on my lead and pulled my headphones off so I had no click to play to. I'm shouting at my drum roadie (who later moved on) 'HEADPHONES... HEADPHONES' and he's off on one side, polishing his nails.
"At Live Aid I can remember coming off and thinking, thank God that's over - scary. The monitoring was so bad, and there you were, in front of millions of people around the world, and you couldn't even hear yourself."
And be prepared for the occasional practical joke. Like the manager telling you to go back for the encore, while the rest of the band have plonked off to the dressing room. "I ran back on, got behind the kit... and the house lights came on. I was crimson. I had to pretend to be fiddling with something, looking for me pint, and then slink back off again." Needless to say, the occupants of the dressing room were doing hyena impressions.
But serious joking is saved for the last gig of the tour. "It's too important to mess around before then, things can go wrong anyway without tempting fate.
"The road crew have vile things lined up for you. Like the monitor engineer shouting through the monitors "bollocks, bollocks," in the middle of a song, and only you can hear it.
"Sometimes they'll turn the monitors up really loud... or off completely. In Australia they waited until we were really sweaty during the last song, then emptied boxes of sawdust over us from above the lights. It stuck".
We pass quickly over the egg and flour fights where the crew came protected by plastic bags, overalls and shields, and the band didn't; skirt rapidly around the cuddly toys thrown on stage... by the roadies; and barely glimpse at the tight spotlight which relentlessly tracks Nik Kershaw for a whole song, focussed precisely on his crotch area. Not all fun is it.
No. A lot of it is fiercely demanding dedication and exercise. The rest is merely planning of such detail it would make the Tube look like... well, the Tube, I suppose. Encores, for example, are worked out well in advance.
"You have a set listing; a black line which means you're off, and then three or four more songs which are pre-arranged as the encore. When you come off you go to the dressing room for a wipe down and a drink, usually a brandy that's thrust down your neck, and then it's back on stage. There's no hanging around in the wings. It's always better to leave the audience wanting. You don't do encores for your own sake."
And there are the finer tricks of appearance and performance to observe. Coping with the Top Of The Pops mime, if you be so lucky. In this country you're usually expected to do a full mime - the entire backing track is played. In Europe, especially France, you'll find yourselves faced with a half mime - the playback of the backing track apart from the lead vocal which the singer adds live. Either way, if you endorse a particular product (and at this stage of the game there's a fair chance you will have been approached) then your manager will have a list of equipment which must be hired to match your needs. The BBC will then go round putting stickers over all the trade names so that no one can see what it is your whacking, twanging or plunking. Oh, commerciality.
"Obviously none of the guitars or keyboards is plugged in, that's easy, but the drums are a problem. You put rubber pads over them so they don't make any noise, but cymbals are more difficult. You used to get plastic imitations which looked dreadful, but now Zildjian have had the idea of taking two rejects and sticking them together. They look like the real thing, but they just go 'clong' when you hit them.
"You don't bother to put the bass drum pedal on, just tap the floor with your foot and hopefully nobody sees, unless the cameraman's a total plank."
So now you've gone through rehearsing and backing a famous star-type person, playing the first big gig, completing a major tour, trekking the States, appearing on TV, and wiping the roadie's egg and flour pie from your bonce. What was best, and what's next?
"I remember that to be on TV was a big ambition, but now we've done so many, I can't remember half of them. It may sound silly, but being played on the radio during the day is really important. After 7.00pm you start getting bands that maybe won't be successful; they're being given a chance, like on John Peel or Janice Long. But you know that when you're getting airplay around 1.00 in the afternoon, you're getting somewhere."
And of course, there's always the first paragraph of our story, remember the bit about group stardom, and making it with your own material?
Since the early Kershaw tours, the band of Mark Price, Tim Moore (keyboards), Keith Airey (guitar), and Dennis Smith (bass) have operated under the name Krew. Encouraged by management and audience response they're taking the band out alone, releasing a single "Paper Heroes" and plotting a separate career. Last year it was their turn to fill in the missing musicians, recruiting Gary Millar (guitar) and Steve Lee on lead vocals and sax.
Easy for them, you posit, how can they fail in their position. Hang on, imagine yourself in the same spot, namely, enjoying success and satisfaction backing a popular performer and musician. That's a lot to lose if the public don't go for your product.
"Nik's always taken the pressure off us as far as interviews go, and answering questions on the radio. We've got the challenge of doing that for ourselves and making it on our own, which will be good. We'll be going out on tour with Nik in June or August, but it all depends on how things go."
Which is not too grim a spot to be in, when you stop to ponder.
One gold star you can paste next to the music business is that you don't have to live a whole life according to your first decision. If the band fails, you can try it as a backing musician. If the sideman routine works well, you can break out as a self contained band. All you need is dedication... well, almost.
Feature by Paul Colbert
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