A while ago, mid 1990 to be precise, I was on a tour bus heading off to Europe to do The F.O.H sound for Steve Harley at a few festivals. I had already done a few tours with him the previous year and, between the last one of those and this particular jaunt, he had changed the line up of the band. Barry Wickens, who played violin and acoustic guitar, had left to join a band called the Immaculate Fools, and Steve had replaced everyone else in the band except the keyboard player Ian Nice.
I was sitting on the coach, waiting for the rest of the band to join us, and idly flicking through a copy of that day’s Guardian. The band embarked, most of whom I did not know because we had not done any production rehearsals but one of the new guys, sporting almost waist length black hair and round John Lennon style glasses, came to sit beside me. This person was Nick Pynn. He later told me that he decided to sit and talk to me because I was reading The Guardian whereas all the others were reading The Times and suchlike but, nonetheless, we started talking and found out that we had a few mutual friends. Over the course of those gigs and the subsequent tours we became friends and discovered that we shared a love of an obscure Irish band from the late sixties – ‘Dr Strangely Strange.’
Why am I telling you all of this (when you can read it in my book)? It relates to a certain attitude which has often influenced my decisions about what I do for people because one thing Nick shares with another long time friend of mine, Steve ‘Boltz’ Bolton. Somewhat earlier that this, in 1988, Steve was asked, by Pete Townsend, to play lead guitar for The Who on a world tour. Not an insignificant offer, and Steve, naturally, accepted. On his return we went out for a drink in a small pub in South London and Steve said, ‘I was playing in this velodrome in Australia to god knows how many thousand people. Playing lead guitar for the Who, a band I have listened to and loved since I was young, and I found myself thinking, ‘This is not good enough. I want to play my own songs”
That little epiphany led to him forming a band called ‘6foot3′ (three musicians, all over 6 foot tall) and a slew of gigs around the country with me on the mixing desk. I went off to live and working in Germany for a few years so lost contact with both Nick and Steve but, when I returned to England and took up residence in Brighton Nick got in touch and asked me to do the sound for a concert he was doing at the Sallis Benny Theatre and we resumed our friendship. A few years later I found myself having a similar conversation to the one I had with Steve. Nick felt that he should be concentrating on making his own music and not being a backing musician for someone else.
Now this is not as ego driven as it might seem. I never got the impression from either musician that they thought they were too good to be a ‘mere backing player’. The ability to turn in a good performance on a stage, night after night, is every bit as demanding if you are playing someone else’s music as it is when you play your own. The decision seemed more based on a desire to create and make something new on their own terms. This is a choice that weighs heavily on you. Do you take the job on offer and do, what is often a pleasurable task, of playing on stage with a well known artist or band or do you settle down, nose to the grindstone and create your own music? Do you take the paycheck or subsidise your art by taking a day job – or even starve in the process in the artist in the garret scenario?
I am not making a value judgement on this other than to say that in both of the above cases I offered my services as an engineer for whatever the two artists could afford at the time because I liked the belief in what they were doing and because, for me, it is the act of creation that overshadows all else. I would also say that I know a number of very good, very professional players who go out and have very little creative input in the end product. Basically, your choice is balanced on your own needs and what drives you as a musician.
There is also the consideration of where your talent lies. The most wonderful soloist or singer may also be completely incapable of writing a song. I knew a guy who was a great keyboard player and who had a sweet tuneful voice. Playing in a covers band he shone but when I went to one of his solo shows, playing his own songs, the result seemed to me to be dull and uninteresting.
in the end we all have a part, a talent maybe, something we can do, and we should follow that path if it comes to us. There is nothing shameful in admitting that your musical abilities lie in another area to that of being a writer / performer. Over the next couple of issues I hope to talk to Steve ‘Boltz’ Bolton, Nick Pynn and his wife Kate Daisy Grant about these things and to write up the results for you. Maybe I will also ask someone from a covers or tribute band about how they see it too. As always, it is the unpredictability of music that fires the soul.