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Theatre Sound

Article from Making Music, July 1987

ha ha

Dave Stewart recalls 1977 and his time as a theatre pit musician. And he chuckles (just).

THE FIRST rehearsal had been a sign of things to come. I'd asked to see the parts in advance, but my request was flatly turned down, and I was given the impression by Brian the short-tempered Scottish Musical Director, that any desire to become familiar with the music was a sure sign of a troublemaker. Pursuing this logic to the bitter end, the sax player had actually sent in a dep to rehearse in his place.

I was rehearsing with the pit band of a curious musical production called "Cycle Sluts". Written before AIDS became popular (1977), the plot concerned tranvestism and light-hearted homosexual gang rape by Hell's Angels, and was enacted by a group of bearded American men in bouffant wigs, stockings and suspenders, and assorted leather fetish gear. Pretty tame stuff really.

We had only two days allotted to rehearse 20 or so songs. I kept finding melody lines on my score that just didn't fit in with the backing and, as the author of the book on musical notation, it was embarrassing to be the source of so many wrong notes. "Let's have a look," growled Brian, snatching my music. "Then, look," he pointed to some scrawl, "it's written for a fucking trumpet." A tone too high.

Mercifully the show's run was less than four weeks from the opening to the closing night. Ease of performance was not facilitated by the equipment. I was playing a Hohner Clavinet and an ARP Odyssey (early keyboards that ran on gas), both borrowed. Brian brought in his own electronic piano and a gigantic Hammond organ.

Brian had built the piano himself from a kit he found in an issue of "Practical Electronics" magazine, at a total cost, he informed us proudly, of £14. Unfortunately PE must have skimped on their R&D somewhat as the instrument was prone to drift wildly in its tuning. It would start off well flat, then drift slowly up to a quarter tone sharp during the course of the show. Or occasionally, the other way around. Needless to say it had no tuning control and inevitably — by the same kind of doomed logic that said it was OK to send deps in to rehearsals — it was deemed the keyboard we should all tune up to.

Brian — who was, after all, our MD — had to cue us into our first number over a sickeningly tasteless intro tape. He was amazing. With seconds to spare he'd be chatting to one of the band, feet up on a chair, music in disarray on the floor. "... built it myself. Practical Electronics, oh aye. Only £14..." Suddenly our cue point would arrive. In one movement, too swift to follow. Brian would swivel around into playing position, instinctively scooping up the right piece of paper from the floor on to his music stand, look round wild-eyed, bark "three... four", and be off like a juggernaut into the tune. God help you if you weren't there on the downbeat.

Then there was the sax player. He was, as they say, 'unfamiliar with the score' — natural enough as he had been in Tunisia at the time of rehearsals. He asked me to give him a count-in to one particular passage, which I dutifully did, but I was surprised as him to hear the resulting cacophony. He kept playing for a while, but was finally forced to desist by the horrific harmonic implications of his part, which would have shocked Stockhausen. At the end of the tune he leaned over to me and whispered grimly, "I think you gave me a bum steer there, Dave." I maintain I gave him an accurate steer, but his part was probably written for clarinet in A, contrabass bassoon, or zither.

We spent more and more time in the pub. At first, we limited ourselves to a quick pint before the show, but now we were starting to pop across in the interval and, in some instances, even between numbers. I don't remember exactly whose watch was slow, or who was responsible for insisting on yet another round, but the fact of it is we stayed in the pub too long one night, so when the time came to play the opening number, we were not seated behind our instruments. Actually we were struggling across the main road towards the stage door when we realised the intro tape was about to run out, and so were forced to make a mad dash for the bandstand. We almost made it. As Brian's hand savagely descended for the count in, men were diving for their instruments, and some of us managed to hit the downbeat, though not necessarily with the right notes. I personally made some kind of contact with the Clavinet, but I can't guarantee that my hands formed the right shapes for G major as I was in mid-air at the time. Overall the musical effect of our entry was pretty interesting — if I'd been in the audience, I'd definitely have sat up and taken notice.

When we heard round about this time that the show was to close we were not altogether surprised. The last performance involved Brian omitting to tell us that the second half of one of the tunes had been cut. This was to allow the actors an emotional speech saying how sorry they were that the show had to close, and how perhaps the world might be a better place if we could all learn to live together and people bearing whips and chains could freely walk the streets without fear of censure, and so on. When the moment arrived, I was banging away on the clarinet, not entirely sober, turned up louder than usual as this was the last night, and let the bastards try and sack me now.

I vaguely noticed that a couple of the guys had stopped playing, so to compensate I turned up even louder... the show must go on. A strange roaring sound was coming from somewhere. It was Brian standing on a chair in front of me, face contorted with fury, bellowing through cupped hands what was to be his last piece of musical advice to me and the rest of the band: "Stop! Fucking stop!" I was grateful to comply.

All in all, my time as a theatre musician was interesting and lucrative, but if I was ever again given the opportunity to appear in the pit, I think I'd decline on the grounds that I'd rather have my sanity.

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Publisher: Making Music - Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.

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Making Music - Jul 1987



Feature by Dave Stewart

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