The Worst Job I Ever had
famous names relate horror stories
Even the famous have on-stage disaster stories. Jon Lewin takes a pew and pulls some confessions
The Wang Bar was full that night. Brimming over. Smoke from countless Marlboro clouded an atmosphere already damp with the froth of a myriad Pils. The serious early evening babble of conversations about MIDI, accountants, and guitar string gauges had long since been over-ridden by the raucous laughter and raised voices of musicians in their natural environment going about their common pursuit: telling stories.
Returning to our table with another armful of bottles, I gathered that the topic under discussion was now embarrassing stage experiences. Brian James, he of Lords Of The New Church, was scratching his shaggy head in an effort of remembrance.
"Well, apart from the usual drinking too much before you go on..." There was a murmur of assent from around the table. "I do remember a time halfway through a set when I broke a string, took my spare guitar from the roadie, and tried to start the next song only to find the spare was completely out of tune. I took the other one back and started again, and broke another string. All I could do was soldier on, solo and all. It sounded terrible..."
"Yeah, roadies," cut in Nigel Twist from The Alarm. "We were doing the Kabuki Theatre in San Francisco on our last tour. We'd just done '68 Guns' as an encore and come off stage into the dressing room. The crowd was going beserk — no, really — so we went back out after a few minutes to do another one. And my roadie had dismantled the kit, assuming that the show'd finished.
"I was left with just the stool and bass drum."
"Did you carry on?" questioned Wilko.
"We had to put the kit back together, in front of 2,500 people, on stage, in two minutes flat, while the rest of the band told jokes. We got two more encores though."
Norman Watt-Roy, bassist with Wilko Johnson's band grinned. "S'pose that made it worth the effort. But roadies aren't all bad — when I was in the Blockheads with Ian Dury, I snapped a string on stage." He glanced across at Brian James. "I didn't have a spare guitar, so my roadie Malcolm actually changed the string while I was playing, dancing around me, trying not to get in the way."
"Roadies!" exclaimed Wilko, his Southend accent silencing the bar momentarily. "I can remember during the early days with the Feelgoods..." He paused as his audience cast its mind back to the dim dark days before punk: that black Tele, that dark blue suit, remarkably similar to the one he was wearing at the moment.
"I was running across stage when I tripped over Lee Brilleaux's foot and fell flat on my back, breaking the jack socket on the Tele. I carried on for a while, then dashed off stage, grabbed a Philips screwdriver, pulled it apart, bodged it up, bunged it back together, ran out on stage, leapt up in the air and carried on. Roadies? huh! Anyway, after the show the manager of this place — it was in Sheffield, I think — came out and said 'that bit where Wilko runs off stage, that's great!'"
"It Just goes to show, doesn't it..." muttered someone sagely.
Everyone around the table nodded in sympathetic understanding.
Julie Roberts, who until this point had been bubbling quietly away to herself in the corner seat, took the lull in anecdotery as her opportunity to regale us with a tale.
"Listen, when I was in Vienna with Working Week, we were playing this big festival with people like Miles Davis, the MJQ, Astrud Gilberto, in a place the size of Wembley Arena — all these famous people..." We settled back in our seats, already smiling at Julie's enthusiasm.
"We were last on, so everyone was really nervous. There I was, all glamoured up, about to make this wonderful entrance. I usually leave my entrance to the last moment," she explained, "when I come on and start singing straight away. But my heel got struck in the stage. The first part of 'Inner City Blues', I was just standing there, dancing. In the end I had to take my foot out and sing the last chorus with one bare foot and one six-inch heel. In front of about 10,000 people. The front row, who could see what was going on, were in hysterics."
"I've fallen through the stage," Mark Bedford from Madness began, only to be drowned out by Dave Stewart (of Barbara Gaskin fame) with a story of having fallen offstage.
"It was with a group called Khan at this little rural venue in Ross-on-Wye which had a really narrow stage. I stood up to do something — show off a bit, probably — and when I sat down, my organ stool wasn't there, I fell flat on my back, and knocked the wind out of myself so hard that I passed out for a moment. When I came to, I didn't quite know where I was, but I could hear music playing. Then I recognised some of it; then I realised that the keyboard part was missing, and I ought to be playing it..."
Loud laughter rang from the assembled congregation, drawing the attention of Ali Campbell from UB40, passing on his way to the Gents.
"I remember," he began drawing up a stool to the table, "when 'Please Don't Make Me Cry' got to number one..." A groan went up from the other musicians, but Ali shouted them down: "...in Holland, and we had to go over there for the first time to do some live TV.
"It was a lip sync job — y'know, miming — and went all right until some stupid **** pushed the wrong buttons on the tape machine, and the tape fluttered, not once but twice. We were all over the place, and ended up finishing our spot in hysterics." He got up and padded happily off.
"Going back to stage problems, I fell through one once," Mark Bedford repeated. "It was in Plymouth, on the Two Tone tour. We used to do a number with all the bands on stage at the end of the night, and the stage collapsed. Me and Neville Staples from The Specials disappeared into the depths."
I asked if he had carried on playing.
"We couldn't as we'd collapsed laughing as well. But there were so many on stage, I don't think anyone noticed." He took a sip from his glass and continued. "And we lost a section of the audience in Sydney, at the Capital City. About ten people fell through this hole in the floor — the cry went out 'is there a carpenter in the house?'"
Julie Roberts spoke up again, cutting off Tim May from the Roaring Boys: "Talking of being abroad, Working Week played the Montreux Jazz Festival, and the stupidest thing happened. We finished our set, did an encore, everything went well, and we came off stage. I went off to the loo and started changing my clothes, taking the make-up off, removing the false teeth, glass eye, generally becoming myself again. Then I suddenly realised that the music I could hear was one of our introductions." Julie giggled at the memory. "I thought it was the first time round, but they actually did that intro ten times! The audience must've thought it was a jam session... Anyway, I dragged my clothes back on, dashed onto stage and tripped over the drum riser. I only just stopped myself falling flat on my face, so I just grabbed the microphone and yelled 'THANK YEW'. Everyone was wondering what the hell was going on!"
At that moment Budgie from the Banshees brought another round to the table. Taking a Budweiser for himself, he sat down next to Wilko.
"I had a little think while I was at the bar, and the worst thing that happened to me on stage was one of those dreaded lapses of memory. It was when I first joined the Banshees in '79... after about a week of rehearsals when I had to learn something like 16 or 18 songs, we played Bedford St. George's Hall. We were playing a song called 'Switch'" — one or two heads nodded in recognition — "which drops down to voice and drums in the middle. But on this occasion it only dropped down to voice. Siouxsie managed a really good a cappella version of the middle verse, then turned round and gave me," he laughed sheepishly, "the funniest of looks. The audience knew the song better than I did, as they were drumming along on their seats where the beat should have been."
Budgie went on. "And the other thing that's happened is breaking the bass drum skin. There's not much you can do about that really — you just have to kick what's left of the skin with your boot, which I had to do at Hammersmith Palais once. The drum fell off the riser eventually."
"I had a Prophet pack up on me once," Dave Stewart said, refilling his glass from one of the half empty bottles on the table. I was playing in France with Bill Bruford. The problem was that it kept switching randomly between programs — we'd be playing a ballad, and I'd be doing a delicate flute part, and it would suddenly cut to 'air raid effects'. We had to give up in the end," he concluded wryly.
The raucous and unpopular cry of "last orders" rent the smoke-filled air, to a general chorus of dissent. As Brian James and Nigel Twist took themselves and their leather trousers up to the bar with the collective cash, Tim from the Roaring Boys piped up again.
"When I was about 14," he began, ignoring the cries of "age-ist" from the older musicians about him, "I was in this band called Vergin' On The Crud — we were very popular in local schools. We had T-shirts, badges, even pens with our name on. Anyway, we did a gig in a Church Hall on a Cup Final night one year when Manchester United were playing. The audience was primarily schoolgirls and skinheads. When we went on stage, this chant of 'Manchester, Manchester' went up from the skinheads at the back. So our drummer walked to the front and said, 'How nice it was to see so many Manchester City fans we had here.' Not smart. As soon as we started the first number, I heard a 'ping' off my saxophone, then another 'ping' off a cymbal — someone was shooting at us with an air pistol. Shortly after that, there was a huge cloud of billowing smoke from stage left: the skins had taken a special dislike to the bassist and had lobbed a smoke bomb in his direction. We carried on, retreating to the back of the stage, but still playing; we were doing Pink Floyd covers, so most people thought it was part of the show."
"Perhaps it was a comment on your choice of material," someone suggested. Tim laughed and went on. "By the time we got to the final number, the guys at the back had come right up to the front, and were holding their lighters under the stage curtains. As we went off, there was another smoke bomb, and the curtains started burning.
"The vicar came back to see if the young folks had enjoyed themselves to find broken windows, smoke, burnt curtains, people throwing up on the carpet... Toxteth? No, this was Pett's Wood, in south-east London."
I broke in on the raised eyebrows and incredulous silence that followed Tim's epic tale of mayhem.
"There's this mate of mine in Perfect Vision — Giles Thomas — who broke five strings, had his Marshall blow up because someone spilt beer in it, and got locked out of the dressing room, all at his band's debut gig in a packed Ronnie Scott's. He ended up playing through the PA...
"Huh — that's nothing. I had this mate..."
"TIME, GENTLEMEN PLEASE!"
Any other anecdotes of a similar nature should be dictated to the One Two Helpline on (Contact Details), or sent by post to the Editorial offices at Berkshire House.
One Two Tactics
Feature by Jon Lewin
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