My unremarkable music “career” – 1995 – 2019
After 24 years of singing, writing songs and “playing guitar” (10 years of those years in a band), it seems as though that part of my life is coming to a bittersweet end. As I’ve taken this week off of triathlon training and running, this blog post is a short reflective piece on my almost quarter of a century as a wannabe musician. It’s just a quick overview, but feels right/important to share something about it all before I forget!
EARLIEST MUSICAL MEMORIES
Memory is fallible ladies and gents, but I wouldn’t make this (often embarrassing) s*** up!
Born in 1980 and raised Roman Catholic, I’m subjected to a lot of hymns – which I remember thinking from a very early age, “the music’s alright, but why are they trying to fit so many words in – it’s so awkward. I can do better than this. I’ll have a word with the priest.”
That lyrically challenged music is balanced out with some great 1980s parties, surrounded by drunken adults who love a good sing-song, even before karaoke was a thing. At a couple of those parties, spoons, a harmonica and an accordion make an appearance, and there’s singing, dancing, and plenty of Irish madness.
Dad’s a big Rod Stewart and Billy Ocean fan, mum seems more ABBA, disco and motown.
Sadly, those parties and the revelers who attended them, dwindle, and are now mostly a distant memory.
SOME MUSICAL FIRSTS
First 7 inch records – 1986 – “Somewhere out there” from An American Tale (my party piece at age 6 was singing this to my family over the record…cringe)
1988 – “Opposites Attract” – Paula Abdul (don’t ask – there was a dance routine and everything)
First cassette albums – 1988 – “Jive Bunny and the Master Mixers” and “Martika” (my first album with lyrics on the inlay cover – this is a revelation. How can I have got the words soooo wrong?)
First LP album – 1989 – “10 Good Reasons” Jason Donovan
First CDs – 1994 – “Big Ones” Aerosmith and “Crossroads” Bon Jovi (“1994?!?” I hear you scream…yes, I clung to cassettes for as long as I could – I loved my Walkman). These are both compilation albums, so no words in the inlay cover – and I am yet to discover the disdain REAL musicians have for those without the original albums. Whatever…!
And then it’s 1995 and I’m a 15 year old Year 10 student, sat in a circle with my classmates in the drama studio. A long-haired boy sits hunched over his guitar, lit by the coloured spotlights above. In my memory, these lights have a blueish tint and there’s dry ice all around the young musician. We are all spellbound by the voice, the emotion, the sounds of the single electric guitar filling the room like an orchestra. I’m glad that there’s no video footage of this occasion, because in my mind, it is one of those iconic, life-changing memories that I refuse to have altered.
The boy, later became the man, Christopher Macaree of the band Decaydes – do check them out.
The moments that follow that performance include the decision: I must learn how to do that! The days that follow include a guitar lesson from Chris, and my first page of box chords, to the first guitar song I learn to play – Oasis’s, Wonderwall. Before you groan – think back to if you have ever given a busker some change after passing them playing this song. I know several of you must have, because I later became that busker, and that very song pretty much paid my rent on more than one occasion.
By the following summer I have bought my first three quarter size acoustic guitar from Argos, with money from car washing and a paper round, and I get to work on building some finger callouses! Not difficult with the action on those strings – they’re a full finger height off of the fret board! (I wish I had started with a classical guitar, as the nylon strings would have made practicing less painful).
In 1996 my mum takes me to a music shop in Ilford, Essex. As a Christmas present, I pick out a red Fender Squier Strat and a small practice amp, with dreams of becoming the next Richie Sambora or Slash. The action is far better, and I love the sound of it…but I still can’t play for toffee.
I continue to suck at guitar, refuse to use a plectrum, but that doesn’t stop me from picking it up sporadically, when I should be studying for my GCSE exams, and trying to learn The Beatles songs from a library book.
My party piece has now gone from 6 year old, singing a ballad on a stool, to 16 year old strumming his three chords while everyone sings along (for the first two verses anyway…I never managed to learn the bridge…but everyone’s singing by then, so it doesn’t matter, I tell myself).
My first attempt at forming a band comes in about 1999, when Bryan Adams becomes some sort of descendant of Nostradamus, as one of his songs basically predicts our experience:
Was the summer of ’99, me and some guys from college, had a band and we didn’t try all that hard, Pickford quit, Walker got plastered, should’ve know we’d never get far.
Anyway, when I look back now…OK, I’ll stop – something good definitely came out of it though i.e. I was introduced to a far greater repertoire of music (and bagged myself a hottie). Had it not been for our mini-jam sessions, I would still be listening to Bon Jovi and The Beatles ad nauseum.
In 2006 I am leaving Spain where I have been living for the past four years, when the universe sends two more signs that I should give this music thing another go.
The first is that while walking along a street in Marbella, a gypsy tries to sell me an acoustic guitar which was stolen from my apartment the previous year. Yes, a gyspy tried to sell me back my own guitar. How I’ve not written a song about that, I don’t know. I wave down a passing police car, have an argument with the fence, and get my guitar back.
The second is that some travelling professional Italian musicians (The J.C Band – J.C Cinel and Jacopo Deflini) take up residence in Marbella, and I get the opportunity to sing, play guitar and have a few wild nights with them. After drunken conversations with them I decide to get to a level that I can perform in public – but I need to learn the chords (all of them, bridge included) and the lyrics.
My next move is to return to England and audition to be a London Underground busker (with my stolen guitar). It is one of the best jobs I ever have, while Carling are sponsoring the scheme, but I lose interest after that, as booking pitches becomes a bit of a nightmare.
I start to use a plectrum or “pick” as I need to make the acoustic guitar loud enough to be heard above the trains and commuters. I resort to using a coin on a number of occasions as using my fingers results in blood and skin everywhere…gross but true.
I’m what’s known as a “strum and dumber” – no real talent or musical knowledge, but I’m learning chords and keeping rhythm well enough to sing along to.
I realise that certain songs suit my voice more, and earn me more money, and try writing a few to fit those criteria. I start listening to a lot more male singer-songwriters and especially love those with soulful voices like James Morrison, Paulo Nutini and Ray LaMontagne.
I enter the UK Songwriting contest for several years in a row, but never manage to write a winning entry. I know that they are good songs, but just not what they are looking for. It’s frustrating, but I’m not writing songs to win competitions – it would have just been a bonus.
In 2008 after getting married in Italy (with Jacopo, one of the Italian musicians, as a guest), Laura and I embark on a trip around the world. I get the opportunity to play and sing in a variety of countries, actually paying for our food and drink by playing each night at a bar in Laos. Then when we reach Australia I once again get a busker’s licence and try my hand as a street musician.
We meet up with friends (Scott and Lisa) in Sydney, just before New Year’s Eve 2008 and this is the start of Scott-Free (Scott, for…well Scott, and Free, because of my “Free Spirit” tattoo). Scott sings the main vocal, I play guitar and harmonise, and we split our earnings 50/50 as we busk up the East coast of Australia. We play a gig or two in bars as well – and attend our fair share as audience members too.
When Laura and I return from New York in August 2009, Scott and I are keen to get a band started, and shortly thereafter, Mosaic is born. Our first rehearsal is at The Farm, in North Ockendon/Upminster.
It comes at the perfect time, as everything else in life is telling me to grow up and get serious. My first child, first mortgage and first real career all come in the space of months, so the band stops me from going completely insane and feeling like a complete failure (remember by this point I have been out of uni for 7 years, and while most of my friends are living successful lives, I have done nothing of note).
I start to learn lead guitar as well as rhythm, and I take a back seat vocally.
Scott, Gary and myself chip in towards a PA, monitor, speakers and stands so we can start doing gigs…at the time it seems like a risky investment, but it proves to be worthwhile, and pays itself off in no time.
Scott (vocals), Gary (bass), James (drums) and Deano (me, guitar) were Mosaic, Car Boot Tetris, Coversion…and a few others…but always the same four original members (bar one hilarious* attempt to replace James after a temporary departure).
*Hilarious for Scott and me, but probably not for Gary. It turned out that James’s potential replacement, had once had a fight with Gary at school and there was definitely some tension in the air still. There were other reasons he wouldn’t have been a great replacement, but thankfully James came back to us anyway so enough said!
Scott and the band organise for a whip round for my 30th birthday, so I can stop borrowing guitars from other people and get my own Fender Stratocaster. A wonderful gesture, and an awesome present…the guitar I’ve always wanted from PMT in Romford (which is sadly no longer there).
Just before our debut festival slot at T-Fest, I manage to drop my laptop bag, catching it by my little finger before it hit the floor – relief – but also breaking my pinkie oh no! I will play, in pain, removing my little plastic support only for rehearsals and the gig itself.
In our ten years together, we make so many BAND memories on top of all the other major life events that occur: Garden parties…weddings…pubs…new year’s eve parties…birthday parties…playing in a boxing ring…a garage…a farm barn pyjama party…a trip to AMSTERDAM, camping with the band (Amy Winehouse’s death on the cover of NME the morning we left the UK, echoing American Pie, “the day the music died”).
We write some great songs, and play both original and cover gigs – fitting it all in around our busy lives. Turning down or cancelling gigs that don’t suit us for whatever reason – no pressure, no stress.
I only remember one heated discussion during one interval, and which is followed by a handshake straight after the second set. We are a tight band.
Our final gig ends two songs too early as my A string (I’m tuned down a full tone, so technically my G string…LOL) snaps!!! We shake hands, and I run off to get some sleep before my second triathlon 70 miles away!
Apart from the memories, I’ve also got a bit of tinnitus – seriously – and I lip read a lot. But it was totally worth it. It could have been far worse…but we were never THAT sort of band!
So now it’s time to pass the torch. Robyn and Ralph will grow up with music, like Laura and I did. They won’t be pushed into anything, but I’ll happily be their roadie if they decide to drop out of school and give music a proper shot, like I never actually did.
I have no real regrets, as let’s face it, if I’d been talented enough I wouldn’t have made it past age 27 anyway! Now I’m too old to die young, sober enough (most of the time) to have some great memories of it all, and lucky enough to have parted ways with everyone while still on good terms.
Fingers crossed there’ll be some sort of reunion at some point, but for now the Strat will sit in its case under the stairs. They’ve got my number!
I’m off to “get a real job” and enjoy my “sporting midlife crisis”.