I Should Be Laughing, But I’m Not

General Election 2015 – A Wake-Up Call For Democracy

General Election 2015 PR versus FTPTresults
Potential democracy in action. I might not like the fact that some form of PR would give parties I don’t necessarily agree with a larger representation in Parliament – but that’s just tough, because anything other than fair representation for all is undemocratic.

So what about UKIP – the crackpot party us ‘lefties’ love to hate and trade insults with over social media? There’s not much of their core policies I agree with, and their mainstream policies pretty much drift into the same territory as policies other parties I’m more in tune with display. So there I was, the day after the night before, watching the election results come in, wondering what seats the ‘UKIPpers’ would win, ready to laugh at any losses they might sustain.

But then it hit me – in nothing less than jaw dropping style, having learned that Nigel Farage’s party had gained 13% of votes cast, with just ONE seat won! This was no longer a laughing matter, but a serious, sobering error in democracy.

Although not a UKIP supporter, as far as I was concerned, this was the undeniable final nail in the coffin for FPTP politics. Love him or hate him, Farage had worked hard to promote his party, gained the third highest share of the vote, yet was denied anything like the representation of his voter’s views in parliament. To be perfectly honest, I actually felt sorry for Nigel Farage and his supporters – they’d been robbed. With the SNP gaining 56 seats on 5% of the vote the figures were certainly turning out to be a travesty, the mouldy icing on the cake being yet another thirty-something percentage ‘majority’ government – a lot like the 2005 victory Labour took.

With 63% of voters not voting for the party that got ‘first past the post’, this was actually a General Election nobody won, the biggest loser being democracy itself. In a fit of disgust, I immediately joined the campaign for electoral reform as a paid-up member, never having felt so politically infuriated – not even during the Thatcher years. This was a new level of anger, driven by the injustice of a broken electoral system fit for the Tories and Whigs of three centuries gone.

Just for the record, if anybody hadn’t noticed, the 2-party political landscape of the 20th century is over, along with the dinosaur structure used to allocate seats in parliament. The time for change is NOW!

So how do we remove a broken electoral system not representing the people who participate in what is now a pseudo-democracy, where minority support governments can win the right to govern without capturing the majority of votes cast? For me, the issue is clear:

Cross-party consensus on action for electoral reform.

Now is the time when we have to put our political differences aside and unite as one body to challenge the political establishment on this issue. We have to stop trading insults over Twitter and stand together for our right to a fairer electoral system – even if it means other parties we don’t agree with win their fair share of representation in parliament. I’m prepared to drop my ‘lefty-liberal’ antagonism for the greater gooddemocracy – because without it, we are all losers. The issue at stake is bigger than divisive party politics. If that means me standing shoulder to shoulder with ‘UKIPpers’ to force change, then so be it. The Green Party are already making tentative steps in this direction because it’s the same raw deal for them. I hope other parties who feel strongly about the need for electoral reform will also stand up and be counted on this principle. At the end of the day, it’s about fairness and if UKIP have won a portion of the vote indicating they should gain more seats in parliament than people of my political leanings would like, then it’s tough, because that’s REAL democracy in action. In the end, it benefits us ALL.

We can go back to party politics after we’ve won the battle for reform, knowing we’ve achieved a better platform for the British electoral system to flourish under. If we carry on bickering over the social media fence, the 37% ‘majority’ governments will just sit back laughing at us, knowing that they can leave us to fight amongst ourselves, whilst they head for another minority vote victory in 5 years time – and that’s not democracy.

Growing Up With U2

Before It Was Cool To Hate Bono & His Boys

Bono screenshot - Werchter 1982
Bono at U2’s Werchter gig in 1982, broadcast on ITV, 25 June 1983 (I taped the audio from the TV onto a tape cassette recorder!) Long before the days of mass-media ridicule, U2 were pretty much ignored by everyone except their loyal fanbase. That wasn’t to last much longer…

Everybody hates U2 – or at least Bono.

It’s official.

Not content with becoming the butt of South Park jokes, being criticised for less than transparent tax arrangements, befriending Popes, trying to save Africa, hanging out with Presidents of the United States, wearing ridiculous designer prescription sun glasses, flying hats to gigs, presenting the ‘cool’ face of Christianity, naming Nelson Mandela as a ‘friend’ and being generally pretentious, the band take the annoyance factor up another level by forcing their latest album on 500 million iTunes account holders!

As for me, I couldn’t possibly comment; sure, some/all of the above could present a valid rap sheet if you want to culturally assassinate a band who went from zero to hero to ridiculed millionaires, in a space of 30 years. But my relationship with U2’s music goes way back; way before anyone could dream of Louis Vuitton ads or Dublin Docklands development.

Believe it or not folks, there was a time when U2 couldn’t get arrested for throwing a brick through a window of The Baggot Inn – and that’s what everybody forgets, or more likely, doesn’t even know. Now I’m not going to fess up to being some huge U2 fan these days as that wouldn’t be true. But I certainly owe the band a debt of gratitude for their music at a time when nobody knew them and nobody really cared.

A Boy Tries Hard To Be A Man

Threshold, August 1982
‘Threshold’, August 1982. L-R: Paul Dodd, Rob Heath, Moi, Andy Kitchinson. Photographed in Rob’s old back garden at ‘Ashestiel’, 122 Birkenhead Road, Meols, Wirral. My NWOBHM dream band, or so I thought!

It’s late summer 1982, I’ve owned my real first drum kit for 16 months and I’m already onto my second schoolboy band. We are ‘Threshold’, we play for fun and we are Rockers at heart; well, all but one of us. Driven by a creative urge that outstrips our youthful, naïve exuberance, the founding member of our troupe is plotting his move to fresh musical pastures.  Three of us remain wrapped within our collective dream bubble, as we pretend to live out musical fantasies in the lands of Iron Maiden, Van Halen, Motorhead or any of the NWOBH bands who are currently thriving. I desperately want to be Clive Burr in my own Iron Maiden utopian blueprint; but the person whom I have known the longest in our unit has moved beyond this schoolboy dreamer’s trap. He has already been taken by the growing pains that will within a few months, separate me from my happy demeanour. He has discovered the band that over the next four years, will help make sense of the confusing musical crossroads he stands before.

As for me, I fasten my blinkers down ever tighter and tunnel my vision through the pages of Kerrang! magazine, oblivious to the HGV truckload of late adolescence that is about to run me down. But for now, I have my band, my music, my image and an unwavering ambition to conquer the world of Rock. Spinal Tap, Wayne’s World, Bill & Ted are still ideas waiting to be written, yet we play out our juvenile lives as though we are the future script writers of Hollywood Rock music parodies.

It is a fertile time for semi-innocent teenage parties where small amounts of Cannabis are smoked, complemented with cans of low volume alcohol beers. Nobody gets that far out of it that they can’t walk home or catch the last bus. We are lightweights by comparison to today’s teenage drinkers ; but we also have the benefit of living in an era before alcohol marketing to youth culture has been invented. If you want hard liquor, you don’t get it disguised as a sugary, easy-to-swallow soft-drink. Vodka is Vodka, Whisky is Whisky and you learn to ‘enjoy’ the burn, if you want to be a man.

Iron Maiden 1st album sleeve artwork
This was my drumming/lifestyle Bible from 1981 until the end of January 1983. Everything changes, especially teenagers.

The musical backdrop to these mild soirées is mostly steeped in the vinyl from 70s Prog/Rock artists. Everything from Zeppelin, Floyd, Rainbow, Yes, Meatloaf, Genesis, Hawkwind, Springsteen, Purple, Hendrix, The Doors, Cheap Trick, Kiss, to more contemporary Rock artists of the day finds its way onto the turntable. I will often take my beloved Iron Maiden debut album and my Mum’s dog-eared copy of Deep Purple’s ‘Machine Head’ to throw into the pile of hopeful spins.  You get a cool buzz when your records are picked…

But there’s a healthy dose of post-Punk records thrown into the spin – The Stranglers, The Police, The Clash, The Specials, The Anti Nowhere League, Motorhead, Ian Dury and a little known Irish quartet named U2 are all unleashed onto impressionable ears. Thinking back, I was really lucky to be a teenager during a period when so much cutting edge music was being gifted to the youth of the day. I cannot begin to imagine where I would look for inspiration if I were that age in 2015…

Referring back to that little known Irish band, it was doubting band member Rob, who stealthily introduced me to the current works of U2. He’d already bought the ‘I Will Follow’ single and had invested in both of the (unsuccessful) albums they had released – ‘Boy’ and ‘October’. Having known him since I was about 6 years old, I’d always been on the receiving end of Rob’s musical tastes, spending many an hour in his parents lounge where the best turntable we could access lived. Over the years, Rob had introduced me to every Beatles album (including post-Beatles member’s solo albums), ELO albums, Genesis albums and U2 were the next in a chain of evolution. I’d suspected something was wrong in our band, but I was too wrapped up in my own world to realise he was progressing musically beyond the confines of Threshold’s Rock/Metal limitations. He’d quietly suggested that I seriously check out the U2 stuff as it was a new direction in guitar bands, though never directly saying that this would be his new musical pathway. Being heavily into British Metal bands, it would have been easy for me to dismiss these new semi-mulleted upstarts, but historically respecting Rob’s musical opinion, I gave them a fair hearing.

Sure, they had some raucous cutting guitar work, though nothing to match Thin Lizzy or Iron Maiden, but I certainly agreed they had something about them. Unfortunately, my ears weren’t ready for change and we saw out the rest of 1982 at quietly brooding, musical loggerheads. I was sixteen going on seventeen, but unbeknown myself, my own sound of music was about to change.

All Is Quiet On New Year’s Eve

The Tube with presenters Jools Holland and Paula Yates
‘The Tube’ presented by Jools Holland and Paula Yates kicked some real ass when launched in 1982. It went on to break many an underground band into the mainstream, including U2 and The Smiths. They simply don’t make ’em like that any more.

Friday 31st December, 1982; I’m looking forward to another New Year’s Eve party with my band friends and their extended social circle but there is TV to watch first. The barely out-of-nappies Channel  4 has a groundbreaking music show that my generation has never seen the likes of, having been raised on the tame, cardigan wearing BBC’s efforts to pacify the unwashed upstarts of Britain’s teenage populous. ‘The Tube’ is brash, anarchic and totally exciting. No one knows what’s going to happen, it’s a live 6:30pm broadcast and they push Margaret Thatcher’s electorate’s sensibilities to the limit; Mary Whitehouse hates it, but we love it.

At some point during the broadcast, we are given the first airing of the video for U2’s next single, ‘New Year’s Day’. The song has a haunting piano, distinctive Bass line and that echoey guitar sound I have heard on their previous records. They are riding horses through snow in freezing conditions, somewhere in Sweden, so Paula Yates informs us. It’s a million miles away from Iron Maiden, but there’s something about it that hooks me in.

Not long after the programme finishes the doorbell rings and Rob is here to pick me up for the party. We walk to the next town along a boardwalk that creates a border between sand dunes and beach, discussing the highlights of tonight’s TV. We both gravitate in agreement that the new U2 song is a winner and carry on to our destination. From there onwards, the night grows fractious, as we mingle with friends, band members and ex-band members. There’s something wrong; Rob isn’t happy, there’s an air of tension in the background and it’s band related. I down a few drinks and try to stop myself sinking into his mindset, but all is not well. Sometime between 4 & 5am, I creep into my bed, wondering what earthquakes would come in January after the night’s tremors.

A Change Is Going To Come

Nick Lauro - self-portrait, January 1983
Long hair…check – black leather biker jacket…check – Iron Maiden badge…check – tight jeans…check – believe it or not, this is Art college homework for January 1983 – self portrait photography. Trying to look cool in standard issue NWOBHM regalia of the time, within 2 months I would start the first of many self re-inventions.

January 1983 is a miserable month. I am unhappy with my college course and within the first week of going back to study, my band are down a guitarist. Rob has dealt his blow of disloyalty and I am not a happy bunny. Then comes the second kick-in-the-balls and it’s not entertainment; my world implodes as I read the words from a page in ‘Sounds’ newspaper: “Burr Quits Maiden”. The single, biggest drumming influence in my life over the past 12 months had been ousted from the band I loved, seemingly without any obvious valid of fair reason. Furthermore, I am not exactly overjoyed with his replacement, Nicko McBrain, formerly of French rockers, ‘Trust’. What I can describe only as a complete feeling of emptiness descends over me, leaving me wondering where my future lies in drums and music.

Matters are not made any better by my personal conviction that I am completely repulsive to the opposite sex and my hormones are further adding to the self-ass-kicking I seem to excel in giving myself. But salvation is only a cold, January, Friday night away, when ‘The Tube’ broadcasts highlights of 1982’s Gateshead Festival featuring performances by The Beat, headliners The Police and the up-and-coming Irish boys, U2.

The Police I have long covertly admired from afar and if the truth be known, there’s a lot of popular artists releasing songs I like that should be an anathema to the long-haired Rock tribe I have affiliated myself with. But the whole Maiden/Burr episode has simply stirred natural evolution up a gear and my subconscious is looking for a new musical clan to bond with. U2’s performance at Gateshead is electric; I am glued to the energy coming from the stage, in particular, the effervescent charismatic young front-man, ‘Bono’, as he is referred to. It is impossible not to stay focussed on his antics, running across the stage, climbing the lighting scaffold, using the precarious elevation as a pulpit to convert any lost souls into the clan. Disillusioned within the darkness of this New Year, his band offer an open door into their brightly lit unknown, as I take a blind leap of faith away from the music I deem to have let me down. Rob has already seen the light and is sowing the seeds of a future project I will eventually spend the next three years idealistically pushing as my opening bid for superstardom. But for now, there is unfinished business with my band and the matter of a new guitarist to find.

The Tube Pushes Me Over The Edge

Threshold makes it through February into March, looking like we have a replacement for Rob; the band are a quartet again and have decided to learn ‘I Will Follow’ for the new set. As if by coincidence, ‘The Tube’ feature U2 live on their show, no more than 6 weeks after the Gateshead footage. The band are preparing to go out the road to promote new album, ‘War’ and it seems that Malcolm Gerrie and his crew are at the start of a relationship that will eventually, help break the band in America. The broadcast shows ‘Gloria’, ‘New Years Day’ and ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’  in a performance that gives birth to a new musical genre and will become a long-running cliché in the band’s career – ‘Passionate Rock’. The band is on fire, playing every song as if sheer exuberance and energy were a life-saving currency. I sit alone, watching in my Mother’s front room, becoming a full-on, Friday night convert.

From that moment onwards, they have me, hook, line and sinker. My vinyl collection increases by three as ‘Boy’, ‘October’ and ‘War’ come home with me from HMV. The listening begins with ‘War’, continuing in a backwards chronological order. I know the singles from ‘October’ and ‘Boy’ but the albums as a whole, contain deep messages that connect with the scrambled adolescent turmoil that inhabits my frustrated mind. ‘Boy’ in particular, finds every raw emotion that taunts my growing pains, offering me empathy, answers and the hope that one day my emotionally fragile teenage existence will soon make sense. It weaves a picture I connect with through song threads about growing up, trying to find acceptance, identity, wondering who I am, what I’m here for and whether or not I will ever see my wildest dreams come to life. ‘Boy’ soothes the troubled post-pubescent psychology that has been the source of much angst over the past year and offers hope for my unknown future.

‘October’ I will find out later, was their ‘difficult second album’. It is more overtly religious than its predecessor and the question of whether or not I have a belief in God and Jesus presents itself. My mind starts to speculate whether I need to have the same Christian beliefs as three-quarters of U2’s members; will it make me feel better about myself and give me extra inner strength? After all, I’ve just turned my back on a band who sing about the ‘number of the beast’ and all the dark satanic fantasy connotations spewed forth during EMI’s marketing campaign. Without a doubt, I am still mentally vulnerable, far from having the courage of my own convictions and thus, proceed to try and read the New Testament.

Certainly there’s a story of an admirable person here, but by the time I get to ‘Revelations’, it all starts to look like the cover of an Iron Maiden album and the whole integrity of the book starts to fall apart. So while I can empathise with Bono’s lyrics inspired by his own personal religious beliefs, it’s clear that I belong in the secular camp of Adam Clayton.

Aside from my own doubts about religion, I do have sympathy with Bono as ‘October’ addresses the pain he experienced losing his Mother at a young age. That, I cannot comprehend so hell yeah, if he needs the support of a religion to make sense of the grief he is experiencing as a motherless young man, then what right have I to question whether it’s right or wrong to wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve as part of the healing process? Besides which, the band at this impressionable point in my life are more than just being about a smattering of religious lyrical content. However, the uncomfortable down-side of being in the ‘U2 club’ at that period was exposure to evangelised teenagers who had tagged onto the band for purely religious reasons. Not being a Christian, conversation was awkward and I often found myself wishing an old Iron Maiden T-shirt emblazoned across my chest for the duration of these chance meetings.

Notwithstanding the odd run-in with the Billy Graham fraternity, ‘October’ had earned its musical place in my ‘Boy’ and ‘War’ audio sandwich. ‘War’ being the current album release at the time, this certainly covered newer ground with its interesting palette of semi-funk textures and some more of that genius Steve Lillywhite production. Yes, there were some religious references, but the subject matter was harder and a little more mature. During 1983, the threats of an IRA bomb or world nuclear holocaust were never far from the minds of British teenagers. We were more politically motivated than any other generation of youth culture that would follow us, possibly the last of our kind, carrying the torch left by our revolutionary predecessors from the last 2 decades. ‘War’ was certainly an album that dealt with ‘the now’ and a far cry from my previous listening diet of harlots, torture and Satan’s dastardly deeds. The only thing missing to complete my U2 conversion process was to see the band live and as luck would have it, the ‘War’ tour was only weeks away…

Ticket For One

U2 UK Tour Dates, 1983
The last theatre tour U2 did in the UK. If you saw them then like I did, consider yourself one of the lucky few.

It hadn’t occurred to me what I must have looked like as I stood outside the Royal Court Theatre box office waiting for the doors to open. February 1983, I was still in full-on NWOBHM dress code – long (bushy) hair, skin-tight jeans, white Basketball boots, tight sleeveless T-Shirt and the ubiquitous black leather biker jacket. A bystander could innocently assume that I was waiting to buy tickets to see Thin Lizzy who were about to embark on their final tour with Phil Lynott. In fact, one such person waiting with me did actually ask, “you here for the Lizzy tickets mate?” to which, I replied my intention to purchase tickets for another Dublin band! (Still to this day, I regret not taking my last chance to see Lizzy with Lynott.) As it was, nobody in my immediate circle had any real interest in going to see U2, not even my friend Rob, so the band’s 3rd March Liverpool gig was very much a solo affair.

This was a first for me, going to a gig on my own – and looking very out of place. However, the U2 crowd were an undiscriminating bunch and no one gave me a second glance. The atmosphere was truly electric and I can honestly say, the gig was a life changing experience. For a teenager who had lost his band, musical direction and sense of belonging to the Classic Rock tribe that had been home for the past few years, this was a new door opening for a lost soul. U2 were on the verge of breaking big and little did I know, this would be the last theatre-sized tour they would undertake as they propelled themselves from fiery support band, to stadium headline rookies.

All Change

By the beginning of April, had there been Facebook in 1983, my status would have been as ‘In a relationship’. My fortunes had changed in the girlfriend department and a new makeover was desperately needed to reflect my newfound position in the ranks of my teenage peers. The obvious thing to do was to tame the unruly Rocker Barnet Fair, long overdue for an early 80s restyle. My immediate instinct was to get a Bono cut, which was currently touching the uncomfortable but fashionable outer zones of Mullet. However, I opted for a bit more shortness in the neck area, unwittingly pushing more towards the girlie/gay pop-idol imagery of the day, rather than my seriously intended New Wave-Indie-Rock look…

Wham, Bam – I’m Not – A Man!

Wham! 'Bad-Boys' single cover
Oh dear…looks like these chaps favoured my type of leather biker jacket – and so what if I did coincidentally get my hair cut shorter just as this was in the charts? Me, a Wham! boy? Get out of here!

Having a budget of zero £ for clothes, the NWOBHM togs pretty much had to stay as a fixture for the time being, bar the obvious band T-Shirts and any badges/studded leather accessories that gave away previous allegiances! This left me with a minimalist choice of jeans and plain T-Shirts, inadvertently creating an identical style to that of an annoying new pop duo going by the name of Wham! Getting off the bus late one night, I stepped into a group of ex-school contemporaries sitting on the old Hoylake YMCA wall, who’d previously known me as an objectionable Metal head. With my shorter, fashionable haircut, tight jeans, white T-Shirt and black leather biker jacket, I had innocently adopted the current look of George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley, respectively! This extorted hails of approval from the crowd who less than a month before, would have berated me for my lack of current fashion sense. Despite their enthusiastic comparisons to a pair of what I considered to be pop losers, there was a spring in my step as I walked the few yards home, elated in the knowledge that acceptance within a wider peer group was growing.

As the year went on, I fell deeper in U2-worship. Any new clothes would have to reflect what the band wore on their pre-War release promo shots and I grew my hair in pursuit of the Bono advancing-Mullet style. My band, ‘Threshold’, had recovered with a full line-up and started to include ‘I Will Follow’ in their set list, plus gaining more gigs. By early summer, my perceived U2 self-styling must have morphed into current pop culture again, judging by comments we received after a gig at ‘The 81 Society’, a ‘social gathering to appreciate the Arts’, as it was billed. (It was basically an attempt to integrate the 6th form girls of West Kirby Grammar School with the 6th form boys of Calday Grange Grammar School by using performing pupils from both schools as the entertainment.) Due to the fact that we were the most accomplished act on the bill and the ratio of female audience members vastly outnumbering the males, we managed to attract a few backstage admirers. Much to my disappointment, even well educated 6th form girls came complete with blinkered teen-idol perception. Rather than seeing us as some cool underground New Wave Rock band, they applauded our similarity in style to ‘Duran Duran’, instead of the ‘serious’ bands we sought comparison with. Instead of looking a gift horse in the mouth and take the compliment, I chose to laugh it off, hiding my antipathy at their favour of style over substance.

Under A Blood Red Sky

During the summer of 1983, ‘The Tube’ made a broadcast intuitively titled, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Tube’ on which, they featured 15 minutes of a gig that would go down in history as the performance that broke U2 in America. With its huge backdrop of Sandstone, the Red Rocks Amphitheatre was the perfect host to complement the dramatic pomp already evident in their music. The brief broadcast had our gathering transfixed to the TV screen on a heady, June night, as the party we attended took a temporary break in proceedings to watch the show. Being the only one there who had actually gone to see the band at their earlier Liverpool gig, a sense of smugness fell over me as people started to vocalise their regret at not going when they had the chance.

Indeed, the footage was spectacular and we knew we were watching a band turn a huge corner in their career. On the back of this performance, the band released a mini-LP and eventually, a video of the whole show. By the time their next studio album ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ was released, U2’s days of playing intimate venues were well and truly, history.

“Bop Hope, & No Hope!”

For those of you still resenting U2 as a corporate, monolithic, self-righteous, gargantuan, stadium-eating, 3-decades past their sell-by date money-making machine, it is worth remembering that at the start of 1983, the band were heavily in debt to Island Records and were yet to recoup Chris Blackwell’s investment. In 21st century terms, the band would be deemed as a total failure and have been long dropped by any modern cash-conscious label. However, these were drastically different times and the man who signed Bob Marley, clearly had vision enough to keep investing in these fledgling Rock stars.

A funny anecdote is a tale told by ex-Teardrop Explodes drummer Gary Dwyer, who recounts what he said about the band as they accompanied Cope & company as support on an early tour. Unimpressed by the Irish quartet’s efforts at warming up the Teardrop’s stage, Gary’s final judgement on them was quite simply:

This band has got two hopes – Bob Hope and no hope!

In a twist of supreme irony, by the time the Teardrops were disintegrating into oblivion, U2 were on their way to recouping their advance monies and building a brand-name empire that would dominate future music media at the highest possible levels.

Although I didn’t realise it at the time, the bigger the band would get, the further I would drift from their cause.

To Let It Go & So To Fade Away…

From 1983 to 1987, pretty much everything U2 did would dominate my life – albums, magazines, singles, TV appearances – I was still hooked. Historically, ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ was a departure in sound and became the album that would establish their footing in the arena touring market. ‘Live Aid’ truly announced U2 on the World’s stage, resulting in the masses suddenly ‘discovering’ a band I’d been raving on about for the previous 2 years. Despite my continued dedication to the band, I refused to go and see them in any of the arena venues they would perform in from then on. As far as I was concerned, I’d seen them at a level I wanted them to stay at; but success invokes big change and promoters realised the lucrative rewards from cramming 20,000 people per night into 10 venues, rather than the costly intimacy of booking 30 dates in 3000 seater theatres.

Me - Berry St Recording Studios, 1988
1988, Berry St Recording Studios, London. The look of innocence in the studio kitchen as I am captured making coffee by Western Promise Bass player, Dave King. All signs of Mullet hairdo long gone, my reinvention takes on another phase as I leave U2 behind. Tony Prescott (ex Cook Da Books) slumbers in a chair, dreaming of 6-figure publishing deals we won’t see…

By 1985, the U2 live experience for me, was over. Still to this day, I refuse to attend gigs of artists I admire, played in buildings that were specifically built for playing sport rather than projecting the finer points of music. Despite my dislike of attending arena gigs, this didn’t stop me from wanting to be sitting on the other side of the money fence. By the beginning of 1984 my musical pursuits had taken a turn for the serious, as I found myself back together with my errant guitarist friend, Rob, as part of his plan for musical world domination. For the next 2 years, our band Splinter Group, would impetuously try and become Liverpool’s answer to U2, until we realised the music industry of our schoolboy dreams was an apple we didn’t have the teeth to bite or chew on.

The world didn’t need another U2 – or another Big Country; or another Simple Minds; or another Alarm! With my dreams of superstardom smashed into pieces, the natural progression of musical evolution saw me take on new journeys as U2 drifted further away from the new music infiltrating my social circle. Come 1987, the horrific Mullet hair I’d grown matching up to Bono’s very own hideous mane, simply had to go. Besides which, Larry looked cooler with his 1950s quiffy flat-top and the times, they were a-changing…

The Inevitable Reinvention

By 1991 my musical interests had changed to a point where U2 had been relegated to the background of my regular listening. Sure, I bought ‘Achtung Baby’ and welcomed their reinvention as a band prepared to walk on the wild side and throw away their innocence; but it wasn’t in the same league as my current preoccupations. I’d moved on, having found Grunge and its fringe circle of artists, which covered everyone from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, to Faith No More, to Fishbone to my faves of the moment, Living Colour. Probably out of sheer loyalty, I was still in the U2 fan club, which also happened to allow members the opportunity to buy pre-sale gig tickets. In a fit of madness, I decided that I’d like to catch up with the band and experience the ‘Zoo TV’ extravaganza. The nearest gig was the gargantuan Roundhay Park, Leeds in August 1993; so I ordered, acquired and waited for the date.

Being almost a one-day festival type gig, I had no interest in seeing any of the acts supporting, having had an unpleasantly sodden experience at the Genesis/Peter Gabriel reunion gig at Milton Keynes Bowl in 1982. No way was I standing in a field for 8 hours again waiting to see the headline act, trying to find toilets, food and keep my pitch in front of the stage. So we arrived about an hour before the band came on – big mistake…

Roundhay Park, Leeds, circa 1989, original image by Kevin Rogers
Roundhay Park, Leeds 1989 (photo not from the U2 gig). Note the hillside where we stood for the Zooropa gig in August ’93, except extend the pic much, much further to the right…(Photograph taken by Kevin Rogers, found on a U2 forum, if there’s a copyright problem let me know.)

Unbeknown to me, Roundhay Park was a 100,000 capacity open-air venue and arriving just before the main act meant being ‘seated’ at the back – or in reality terms, standing about 1000 ft away from the stage up the side of an embankment. Trying to push to the bottom was the least attractive option, so we stayed on the hillside, spectators looking on at an audience watching a U2 gig. It was such a disembodied experience, that it was possible to have a quite audible conversation, whilst watching huge video screens displaying the unsynchronised movements of the band with a sound that had to travel so far, it was beyond a distance to match up visually. From a drummer’s viewpoint, this was extremely irritating, watching every one of Larry Mullen’s backbeats land, to hear it a millisecond later. Such was my annoyance, I suggested a swift exit after three songs, but was persuaded to stay by my better half.

Thanks to the fan club publishing details of the current set list, I already knew that if we didn’t start the hike back to the car by the time U2 were one verse into ‘Love Is Blindness’, we could look forward to a horrific gridlocked driving experience back to the motorway. So we bade our silent farewell to the event and for once, got ahead of the game; and that was my final, disappointing, U2 live U2 experience. I doubt very much there will be another.

A Short Goodbye & Tentative Rediscovery

Following the Roundhay Park gig, my interest in the band went to near zero, having well moved on in finding new artists and genres to influence me. It wasn’t until 2004’s ‘How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb’ that I actually purchased another U2 album, notably due to some of the songs weighing heavily on the experience of Bono losing his Dad. So soon after the death of my own Mother (who also enjoyed the band’s early music) and having heard Bono talk about the album song-by-song during a radio show, I felt it needed some further investigation.

By 2004, it was ubiquitously fashionable to mock the band (especially Bono) at every opportunity and to quote one Radio DJ, admit to ever having liked their music as being “a guilty pleasure.” As someone who had enjoyed the band at their most commercially unpopular, “guilty pleasure” doesn’t really wash with me and as for the recent backlash over the so-called forcibly imposed iTunes download of ‘Songs Of Innocence’, well, I find it all a bit media-circus pedantic. Maybe it’s out of convenient design, but people inexplicably choose not to identify how blatantly the likes of Coldplay have repeatedly plundered ‘New Year’s Day’ for the backbone of their piano and guitar sounds for their entire career, or how Kings Of Leon lifted just about every backing vocal technique used on ‘Boy’ and ‘October’ on ‘Use Somebody’. But Coldplay and Kings Of Leon are of course, ‘cool’…so their lack of original ideas can be excused by everyone; myself excepted.

U2 - 'Boy' album sleeve art work
‘Boy’ – probably my favourite U2 album, still to this day. Even my mum loved this album to the point, she reproduced its cover in an incredible pencil drawing that hangs in my hallway, much to the envy of many visitors. “There’s a place I go and I am far away…”

I’ll say it loud and proud; within my top ten favourite albums of all time are the first three U2 records for which I make no apologies. What those recordings mean to me in relation to part of my early life is set in stone irrevocably, and I will defend to my dying breath, their place as three of eight gramophone records allowed with me as a castaway on Roy Plomley’s desert island. As for ‘Songs Of Innocence’, it doesn’t set my world on fire like the days of ’83, but as a freebie from a band with whom I have history, it deserved my listening time against a tide of ladies protesting too much, methinks.

At the end of the day, U2 still make a better job of imitating themselves than any of their modern contemporaries, who won’t even notch up the same numbers in career years or album sales. Indeed, U2 came of age at a time when there was a dominant music industry extremely capable of building a behemoth universal brand name. These days, a young band will be given one chance to prove themselves and be dropped if they fail at the first album hurdle. It seems unlikely that there will ever be another music business platform capable of launching a career on a par with U2. Like it not, those days are gone, so make the most of ridiculing the dinosaurs while you can, because it likely won’t be happening again.

So what is my final analysis in defence of a so-called, guilty pleasure?

Well, U2 remain a band to revisit at times when I want to reminisce about what may well have been, the best time of my life; a time to be young, naïve, full of limitless hope and nervous confidence, driven by the arrogance of ambition. Despite numerous errors of youthful judgement made at the time, I wouldn’t have played it any other way. The U2 nobody remembers today, were a band in another lifetime, who inspired me through my most difficult teenage years, helping me to cross bridges, making sense of the intimidating transition from boy to man.

‘Boy’, ‘October’ & ‘War’ – never a guilt, always a pleasure.

Alan Wills – The Death Of A Giant Taken Down In His Prime

I shouldn’t normally be overly moved at the untimely death of a passing professional acquaintance, but in this case, Alan Wills had a persona and presence too effectual to be left unnoticed by the many people his greatness touched. Today has been a difficult day for me and my colleagues, unable to shrug-off the tragedy that has so suddenly hit the Liverpool musical community. Following a collision with a vehicle last week, knocking him from his bicycle and critically injuring him, Alan Wills lost his fight for survival. A painfully unfair stroke of irony for a man who knew how to succeed and win against the odds in the transient, fickle industry we inhabit.

Alan Wills
Alan Wills – photograph lifted from the Liverpool Echo (we never saw the need to take any of him when he came into work). If the reproduction of this photograph is a problem please let me know.

My first knowledge of Alan Wills came via a guitarist friend of mine, Rob Boardman (ex ‘Personal Column’, Jass Babies’ amongst others), around 1990 when Alan was playing drums for Island records signing, ‘Top’.  I’d been in a few bands with Rob and had watched his interest in cutting edge home recording techniques flourish rapidly, thanks to the circles he was mixing within. One name that kept cropping up was Alan’s – “you need to check out a guy called Alan Wills, plays for a band called ‘Top’, signed to Island they are!” Rob would tell me; and hear of him I did. As soon as Rob managed to get a computer setup advanced enough to load wave samples, Alan was giving him DAT’s of drum loops he’d made that Rob would cut up and use in his own recordings – for free. This was pretty state-of-the-art for the time – especially ‘oop north’ in Liverpool!

In due course, Rob’s involvement with Alan and the studio/management organisation he had set up with Steve Powell and Mark Cowley (both ex ‘The Balcony’) at Clarence Street Studios brought me the opportunity to increase my own musical network and find new bands to work with. By 1993 the company had two bands on their roster, one named ‘Space’, the other ‘Rise’. The latter group needed a drummer, I got the job. The demo recordings I was given to learn featured Alan’s (latterly forgotten) drumming skills, showing off a lovely feel I would be expected to try and reproduce when I took over the drum chair.

One of the more amusing memories remaining with me from that period at Clarence Street was a time we were having one of our band/management meetings in the offices there. As I entered the office and walked towards the chairs, my steps were abruptly stopped as I successfully managed to avoid tripping over a Snare drum that had somehow been left in the middle of the room on the floor! “Bloody hell! Who left that there?” I yelled, only to be told it was Alan’s! His beautifully rare Joe Montineri Snare lived to see another day, safe from the inadvertent kicking I avoided giving it.

Fast forward another 10 years and I was out of the music business as a serious player, working a normal day-job, but still remaining within the local music industry. From 2004 onwards, I saw Alan on a fairly regular basis as a customer, watching him flourish in the industry as manager and record label owner. With his sincere and honest passion, Alan managed to change the fortunes of so many musicians, bridging the gap between Liverpool and London, tailoring and fine tuning his prospective artists until they were ready for release to the big wide world. Like it or not, Liverpool is a goldfish bowl in terms of music, full of the usual big fish inhabiting a small pond. In order to elevate above this and find a way out onto the world’s stage, you need somebody who knows the ropes, embraces the challenges and completely understand what is necessary to change about an artist before they are ready to step outside of their insular environment. Alan Wills knew exactly how to be that catalyst between rookie band and gilt-edged record label.

Alan used to visit my place of work regularly and talk for ages about what this or that band were doing, where they were going wrong, what they needed to do and how he was going to re-educate them into becoming something he could sell to the big boys. We listened intently; this was a man with all his fingers on several buttons and most unusually in our business, a man you could trust. He was one of the good guys in a sea of sharks, a genuine, enthusiastic semi-Svengali character, extremely honest, extremely open and eager to share the knowledge with those who understood his hurdles.

Only 3 weeks ago he was visiting us again, telling us about a new bunch of hopefuls he was working on, re-educating until they were ready for debuting before whatever passes as A&R men these days. “I went into their room and the wall was just full of tits and arse! I asked them, what does this tell the guys from London about your culture? I told them to tear it all down, get rid of it and put up posters of your favourite bands and songwriters – then you’ll have something the guys from London can relate to!” It is this re-education desperately needed by so many young bands that will be sorely missed and probably never replaced. Who else thinks like this in Liverpool? Who else continues to think around the problems facing the industry on a worldwide level, weighs them up and still believes it’s worth a shot? Who else totally understands the gravity and size of task it is to undertake the breaking of a band nationally and internationally with the budgets involved and still wants to give it a shot? Who else will tell a band who want to take 3 years off after 2 years of success that they really need to keep up the momentum or face obscurity? That person was, until a few days ago, Alan Wills.

I and my colleagues will miss his visits with his long chats, jovial outlook and for me personally, his unnerving ability to seem to read my mind and reflect my exact thoughts about the industry; yet unlike me, continue to have a positive attitude, unaffected by the bitterness of disappointment. Indeed, we have lost a giant amongst Minnows, a man large enough to rub shoulders with the world’s biggest players in music, yet still down to earth enough to want to share his experiences with those of us further down the food chain. Irreplaceable on both a professional and lest we forget, a personal level, leaving a family in a state of devastation and total loss, the legacy Alan Wills leaves behind is a monument to a man who glowed with the energy of an inner-spirit resolute to finding the good in the creative arts world we struggle within.

Liverpool is yet to feel the true after-shock from the loss of a unique and exceptional man who shared his irrepressible and inspirational spirit with those he came into contact with.

Deep Purple's 'Burn' album cover

Revisiting An Old Hero (Out Of My Comfort Zone)

Pete Tulloch, Drummer for 'Exiles' & Led Zeppelin tribute, 'Mothership'
Pete Tulloch, the man I was depping for. Lovely bloke and now back in the drum seat after some nasty Gout.

Saturday 8th February, 2014, I find myself helping out an old friend, subbing for his band’s regular drummer (a lovely bloke) who has been rendered out of service thanks to a painful attack of Gout. Well, I wasn’t doing anything else seeing as it was early February, a period in the gigging musician’s calendar synonymous with the lingering days of the post-Christmas lull.

Little did I know, this was going to be the hardest gig I’ve done for a very long time, along with being a massive wake-up call, warning me to not get too complacent with music.

Radio City DJ, Phil Easton
Phil Easton, the DJ who launched a thousand dreams in my head.

My friend’s band, ‘Exiles’ as they’re known, are a 3-piece specialising in a playlist of old Rock songs that would have all been featured by the late, great, Radio City DJ, Phil Easton on his early 80’s ‘Great Easton Express’ radio show. Broadcast on school nights, I would be glued to the radio whilst doing my homework, barely a teenager and dreaming about being the drummer for the bands he was playing. This was an era of post-Deep Purple offshoot bands, a time when Heavy Rock was spawning a new breed of exciting groups, fusing the sounds of Punk and Metal into what would be dubbed by the music journalists of the time, as the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal or NWOBHM for short. Phil Easton played all the up and coming bands along with the best of the old school brigade, providing his listeners with a wide gamut of styles within the Classic Rock umbrella. To sum him up in modern terms, he was in spirit, the surrogate Father to Jack Black’s character in ‘School Of Rock’.

As an over-eager newbie drummer, my day-dreams took me to a future when I too, would be as good as the guys on the radio, especially the likes of Ian Paice and Clive Burr, both documented elsewhere on this site as being amongst my earliest drumming heroes.

Fast-forward to 2014, faced with a last-minute set-list of songs with artists such as Thin Lizzy, Frankie Miller, Deep Purple, The Who, Cream, Rainbow, Styx, Montrose, Black Sabbath, Pat Travers, Free, Led Zeppelin, The Tubes and the ubiquitous AC/DC, this was clearly going to be a nostalgic trip down memory lane. It also turned out to be one of the biggest tests yet, of my ability to actually play the drums…

With next to no time to gather and learn the songs, I faced a rehearsal two days before the gig, not as well prepared as I’d liked to have been considering the standards I used to maintain back in my pro days. Things went ok, we rehearsed most of the stuff with a few omissions that probably wouldn’t get called upon. Amongst the unrehearsed included what I deemed to be my Nemesis in the bunch, Deep Purple’s ‘Burn’.

Deep Purple's 'Burn' album cover
The title track of this album will really f*** you up if you don’t have some serious Big-Band style chops together! Ian Paice is a MONSTER!

The title track of their 1974 album ‘Burn’, sees Ian Paice performing like a Dragster with a Nitrous Oxide injection, interspersing barrages of Snare drum rolls straight out of the Buddy Rich/Chick Webb school of drum fills, within a song structure constructed from a myriad of verses, chorus’, middle 8’s, stops and accents.  For me, this was going to be a 6 minute burnout (excuse the pun) of high-pressure worry.

As a kid, I would listen to this and wonder if I’d ever be good enough as Ian Paice to play it, in my fantasy future as a Rock star drummer. 30+ years later and I have the know-how and technical skills to do it, but the engine’s been stuck in a 7 year laid-back groove thang; a bit worrying, to say the least.

Just for laughs, I had a go at playing through ‘Burn’ on my home practice kit, no crib sheets or notes, just as a taster to see how the condemned man might feel. The result? It was clear I needed to do some serious homework.

Although I love playing in my regular long-term band, there’s something to be said for keeping a bit of variety in your musical life. It’s nice to be able to play all those New Orleans Funk beats and fancy shuffles, but that doesn’t really help when you need to call on the old Rock skills from the past – or should I say, the old Big Band era drumming skills, learned in the practice room and yet to be used in anger. Even just contemplating playing this song would expose me to a whole world of doubt, questioning if I could actually play what I aspired to as a kid. The horrific truth was to be found within a very simple adage; do one thing all the time and you get stuck in a rut.

Having made crib-sheets for the songs we had covered in rehearsal, I decided to make one for ‘Burn’, barely fitting onto one side of A4 paper, thanks to its multiple-structure making up 6 minutes and 18 seconds of apprehensive challenge. With only hours to go, I decided to play through the song two more times as part of my final pre-gig rehearsal, just in case. Despite miniscule improvements, my knowledge of the piece was still way, way off any standard I’d like to debut in a public baptism of fire.

Exiles @ The Swinging Arm, Birkenhead, 08/02/14
A very terrified me standing in for ‘Exiles’. Note the specs & music stand with lots of cheat-sheets!

Nerves in check, armed with my crib-sheets, music stand and a pair of glasses that didn’t really want to stay on my nose, the first set of the gig went pretty well. My homework with the majority of the songs had paid off; not ideal, but still an acceptable compromise between pleasure and pressure. Under such situations my instinct is to play it very, very safe and stay within my comfort zone (a luxury I only treat myself to when I know songs inside out). The regret always is, you know if you had another three gigs to get it ‘right’, you would be sitting back with an air of confidence instead of treading through a minefield of nerves and intense concentration. But whatever, the guys seemed impressed and most importantly, comfortable that I would get them through the night.

The unexpected adrenalin rush came after the first song of the second set. We hadn’t rehearsed ‘White Punks On Dope’ and I only had some half-scribbled down notes, but it still wasn’t enough to avoid a potential train wreck. The forfeit option for failing to learn the Tubes classic carried a heavy sentence, to be executed over the next 6 minutes. Yes, you guessed right, it was time for me to burn…

Ok, ‘Burn’ then Nick?

Exiles @ The Swinging Arm, Birkenhead, 08/02/14
This time a Strat headstock hides my fearful face. Probably the best option really…

The shock and fear obviously hadn’t translated to my face, as a somewhat reluctant but obliging “yes” fell out of my mouth into a hungry stage floor, like predator in a dark pit, waiting to consume its next foolish victim; and then it started – a tad faster than the original – but I knew I could take it down to the correct BPM. Struggling my way through the opening verse sections, it was all a bit scrappy for the first 2 minutes; but once confidence had caught up with fear, the final result was by no means perfect though quite passable, leaving me in a mentally exhausted state of shock.

Did I just actually get through that song? My disbelief at having actually pulled it off had drained me of all mental-energy reserves, reducing me to the state of a spent athlete who had just won an unwinnable race, desperately in need of a cooling down period.

But there was to be no rest; not even a chance to wind down with a less demanding song that would provide the necessary breather to recompose myself and let the miracle that had just occurred sink in. No, we were going straight into the Zeppelin medley.

As stated elsewhere on this website, I love John Bonham and Led Zeppelin, so the chance of playing ‘Rock And Roll’, ‘Black Dog’ and ‘Whole Lotta Love’ back-to-back is a rare treat, leaving me dreaming of a day that some elusive Zep tribute band will come calling for my services. Unfortunately, still wound-up from the previous marathon, my mental-energies remained drained, leaving me drawing from the dregs of my cerebral fuel-tank. This was a huge dampener to my fire, a cruel blow before what should have been the personal highlight of the gig. Still shaking with residual nerves, I managed to play all the notes in what appeared to be in the right places, whilst remaining in a subdued state of disconnection from the passing moment. The painful truth was, I simply wasn’t calmed down enough to return to the focussed mindset of ‘performance mode’; I’d peaked too soon, having given my all to one song in a display of premature, musical ejaculation.

The rest of the gig was spent regaining my background composure, knowing that the worst possible scenarios were out of the way and nothing else above my comfort zone would be thrown at me. My immediate post-gig reflections were that I had reconnected with part of my primeval drumming past, gradually lost within the smog of passing years, but now rediscovered. The uneasy question of “what now?” started to poke at me like the feet of a fidgety child from a row behind in the cinema, as I stripped down my gear, seeking possible answers to this new, musical crisis.

The problem is, there’s a huge part of me that loved revisiting the schoolboy Rock I grew up listening to, finally proving to myself I could actually play it. More alarmingly, the lust for playing it some more hasn’t gone away. Yes, it’s full of clichés but on the other hand, lots of people still like and continue to connect to it, making it a marketable form of music to play. Despite upsetting my apple cart, the whole experience has been hugely positive, forcing a re-evaluation of my currently singular, musical pursuits. No, I don’t want to stop playing funky-souly-jazzy-bluesy music; but I don’t want to leave my early Rock roots behind at that one gig either.

There’s a whole genre of music from my past that I could be out there playing in addition to the limited activities on the ‘specialist’ music circuit. Perhaps it’s time to sniff about for a sideline pursuit?

And what of the dangerously difficult ‘Burn’? Will I be adding it to my regular regime of groove tracks to play along to? You betcha life on it!

Ian Paice, once again, as in my youthful, dreamy drumming days, I tip my (virtual) hat to you.

If anybody wants to see how ‘Burn’ should be played, check this guy out. He really nails it like I wished I could have done!

Drum Cover Of Deep Purple’s Burn By Denis Richard Jr