Ten years to meltdown
Way back in 1990, as it is today, to be a ‘professional’ musician, you literally had to be prepared to play any music for money. It doesn’t matter how demeaning, childish, abhorrent or so far removed from your artistic soul it may seem; if there’s cash involved, you do it. Looking back, I’d completely lost my direction in knowing exactly what sort of music I wanted to play. Sure, it would be a dream to work for Sting or someone, but that was never going to happen in a million years, so I battened down the hatches and took on whatever came my way, starting with a holiday-camp season in Great Yarmouth during the summer of 1991.
This undertaking came close to mentally destroying me (that prize went to playing the pub circuit of Merseyside later on) but looking back, I could have made it so much easier for myself. I was paid handsomely for the job, had my own caravan on site, all day-time off every day, one night off a week, more disposable ‘me-time’ than I could seem to use up and the means to live like a king for 6 months! Yet I chose to wallow in a cloud of self-pity and sulked around the site for six months, much to the irritation of the other musicians who seemed to be enjoying their self-imposed term of luxury incarceration. If nothing else, my sight-reading improved dramatically and I had for the first time in my life, a bank balance ending in three zero’s. Unable to escape the situation due to breach of contract law, I reluctantly stuck it out and vowed never to return.
Back home, I faced the bleak reality of needing to find more employment as a professional musician. I eventually hooked up with a band of decent musicians who played the local pub and club circuit. If the summer season seemed bad, this next venture was to turn out to be the nemesis that would push me to the edge of sanity. Night after night we would play a smarter-than-average set of songs to audiences who had no interest, other than drinking themselves into oblivion and falling over our PA speakers, or complaining aggressively that we should “play some Rock’n’Roll” just to remind us that Liverpool’s taste in music hadn’t evolved since 1964. Some of the venues we played sustained a tense atmosphere, always on the point of explosion. Sometimes things turned violent out front; but for most of the time we got away without having to witness too many displays of low-IQ, testosterone-fuelled brutality. On many occasions, it became necessary for me to literally psych myself up to pack my van before going to work the hell-holes. Something was going to snap inside, so I got out before any more damage could be done.
Sanity restored, I managed to hook up with other bands who didn’t frequent the local pub circuit to make money, preferring to ply their trade in the quieter, old fashioned working men’s clubs that were just about hanging on to an ever bleaker prospect of survival. This involved a downgrade in income and in some cases, the standard of musicians I was working with. However, it did give me a chance to reflect and reconnect with other musicians from my past and rekindle my need to play original music again – for the love of it this time. Unfortunately, the daily requirement to keep the wolf from my front door showed no signs of abaiting; along with the unresolved dilemma of how to earn a decent living without being forced to return to the rough-house pub circuit. However, the resurgence of interest in a defunct Swedish pop group from the 1970’s was about to change my fortunes as the tribute band scene was born.
Between 1994-98 I managed to enjoy a fairly healthy run on the UK’s tribute band circuit, taking part in tribute acts to: ‘The Police’ (we were ‘Synchronicity’, the UK’s first official Police tribute band with a name promoters could never pronounce); the 1970’s Disco era and finally; the dreaded but ubiquitous ‘ABBA’ tribute. It was challenging dealing with the bizarre hazy line audiences would sometimes put between what they saw as fantasy and what they saw as the real thing. But the fact was, during this musical gold-rush, I experienced more money per-gig than I’d ever earned in the past (and since). There were gigs at venues where ‘proper’ bands performed on tour with riders that varied from sandwiches & hot drinks to ostentatious full-on banquets. Despite what appeared to be a level of ‘success’, I could never put to bed the feeling that it was all just a deceptive sham and ultimately, a sell out to musical integrity that only existed because the industry had degenerated into a champion of neanderthal, soul-less, have-it-large Brit-Pop. It got to the ridiculous point of tribute acts opening as support to so-called cutting edge bands of the day, to which, I found myself in such a situation at least once. Looking back, it would have been better for me to stop analysing the situation and treat it for what it was – a bit of FUN for a lot of people and nothing of any musical importance.