Monday, 27 July 2015

Band Rehearsal Rooms I Have Known

My first experience of seeing a band rehearse was in Newark, Nottinghamshire when I was about 15. Before that, I had never considered that a group might need to play their songs over and over again with a bit of arguing, blaming and shouting in between.

At the end of the '70s, there were two significant rock bands in Newark: Paralex and Overlord. Although I was too much of a punk to admire the hard rock of these bands, the different youth cultures tended to mix together in such a small town.

Paralex were the first band I ever saw rehearsing. They went on to join New Wave of British Heavy Metal

One Sunday afternoon in the late 1970s, someone took me and a friend to see one of these bands rehearse - I tend to think it was Paralex. The rehearsal took place in a small detached bungalow. Each member of the band was in a different room, with cables running down the hallway. The noise was unbearably loud, even as we walked up the road, but worse still inside. Looking back, I guess we were taken along as 'girls'. But I didn't realise that at the time; I don't think we stayed long.

Soon after that, The Devices were formed. A bonus for any band is to have a member who has access to a space for rehearsal and John Bingham had the keys to the Palace Theatre Workshop in Newark, Nottinghamshire. This was a space where theatre flats and lighting equipment were stored. It was also tucked away at the back of a car park where no-one could hear anything. We spent some time clearing the space and then used it to rehearse our naive punk-pop. We played The House of the Rising Sun as well as songs by The Ramones, then quickly went on to write our own agit-pop songs. I think we also put on a couple of gigs in that workshop room. I revisited Newark recently and it seems that the workshop room is now a drama studio.

Palace Theatre, Newark - Where The Devices formed, rehearsed and performed in 1979

My next bands, The Chaos Biscuits/Pandas were purely bedroom bands, that never played any gigs. We played quietly at Totley Highfield Halls of Residence, and at our flat next to Dore Station, where the recordings were made.

Flats by Dore station, near Sheffield. Bottom right hand flat was where The Pandas recorded demo tapes

PO! was formed with links to Multiplex and Leicester City Council's Community Arts service. This meant that you could hire a room at Fosse Neighbourhood Centre for a fairly cheap price; the only problem was that it was very much in demand, so it was often unavailable. It was also two bus rides away, or a very long walk carrying a guitar case.

Fosse Neighbourhood Centre, Leicester

After a few months, the band started using 'Archway' studios in Leicester. This was under a railway arch alongside car repair firms and sandblasters. You paid a fee for 2 hours rehearsing, and could use the old drum kit and amplifiers on offer. I think there were parts that dripped; it was certainly dark and dingy.

Archway Studios - used for PO! early rehearsals 1987
PO! rehearsing at Archway

One of the best rehearsal/recording studios at the time was Happy House. This was in a building on the edge of Leicester's cattle market (now the Freeman's Common Morrisons site). Previously the building had been a mortuary and then a BBC Radio Leicester studio, but the band The Swinging Laurels had taken it over, changed their name and rented it out to other local bands. John Barrow writes about this era in his book How Not to Make it in the Pop WorldI have struggled to find a photo of the Happy House building, but maybe a better one will turn up once I publish this.

This is the roof of the Happy House building back when it was a mortuary!

After a while, it became hard to get rehearsal time at Archway or Happy House, because they were so well used by other bands. Another rehearsal space was then tried; this was Chatham Street - run by Ian Redhead and his brother. It was a basement under a textile factory, with an hourly paid room, a resident room and one that was not used, known as the 'wet room'. After a few uses of the hourly room, I persuaded Ian to let us clean up the 'wet room' and have it as our own residential room, maybe sharing with another band. This was agreed on, and we spent a week getting rid of rubbish, trying to dry out the floor and walls with little fan heaters and doing a bit of painting. I think that we may have put pallets on the floor and then covered them with carpets to keep our equipment out of the puddles, but it was still extremely damp.

PO! rehearsing in the newly painted 'wet room': Julian Glover, Jan Frazer, Ruth Miller

Ruth waiting outside Chatham Street rehearsal rooms; load out bay on Stamford Street

For a while there was a little scene going, with nightly rehearsals followed by drinking in the nearby pub 'The Black Boy', but when the rainy season came, the 'wet room' proved too wet to continue playing safely, so PO! moved into the resident room, sharing with The Originals and The Brand New Executives. Meanwhile, Ian Redhead was planning to open a massive rehearsal and recording complex on Conduit Street, near Leicester railway station. This was to be called 'Stayfree' - I assume after the Clash song.

The most significant feature of the Chatham Street rehearsal space was the toilet provision. Many males in bands don't seem bothered about how gross a toilet gets, and I did try to adopt that way of thinking. I got by for several months laughing at the  rock 'n' roll toilet that looked like some kind of monochrome Jackson Pollack creation and not worrying about bacteria, pubic lice and stuff like that. However, I recall hitting the point where I went out and bought toilet cleaning equipment, did the job and made a bold imperative sign for the boys. Things didn't improve greatly, but I tried. To get to this toilet, you had to climb a curved flight of stairs that had been amateurishly installed. As time went on, the stairs began to sink on their fixings; particular steps smashed through and we were told not to use them. But when you've gotta go, you've gotta go - so visiting the disgusting toilet became a feat of mountaineering, stepping lightly on the few step-edges that seemed more firmly fixed. Until someone smashed the toilet bowl, and Ian Redhead opened a new rehearsal space which we moved to straightaway.

To be continued...

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

How to Play Your First Gig

The way you present yourself on stage in your first gigs can make a big difference to the success and longevity of your band. The music can be terrible, howling with feedback, out of tune or time. But with character and energy, you can gain fans who will come to more gigs and allow you to develop and improve musically. Just by having confidence, you can make it a great band!

In your head, you might aim for this perfect musical gift for the audience....

However, deep down you know that it's more like this kind of gift....

And that's where the first bit of learning comes in. Don't feel bad about what you do; be proud!

In your first gig, you are showing what you can do. Yes, you should rehearse and plan and promote all that you can, but being a good band is about persuading people that you are a good band. So which of these statements after the gig sounds like a good band?

"It's usually better when the drummer's in time. Sorry it was rubbish"

"Wow! that was great. I don't care if you don't like it. That's us"

But I so often hear the first kind of comment so many times from inexperienced bands. 

Never apologise for what you do; otherwise you might as well give up. After you have played 10-20 gigs, you will actually be much better and it will be easier for an audience to enjoy your playing. The problem is that most new bands fall out over terrible gigs and audiences don't enjoy watching an apologetic band. Many split up before they've had a proper chance - often because not everybody is committed to the project and there is no shared vision of what you're trying to achieve.

The band thinks that the issues are tuning, timing, playing badly, forgetting the words, not being able to hear...... all of these things can be sorted out with experience. 

However, the audience thinks the issues are ... lack of confidence, being boring, taking too much time between songs, looking shy, staring at the floor or the instruments, not being any fun, being self-indulgent, not being aware of the audience, looking as if the band hate each other ........ I could go on.

The point of playing a gig is to play it FOR AN AUDIENCE otherwise why not just stay in rehearsal, or ask your mum and dad or girl/boyfriends to come and listen to you if those are the people you want to play for. So think who you want to play for and what impression you want to create.

Top 15 tips for your first gig:

1. Publicise it well - not just to your friends but as widely as you can, at least 1 month in advance.

2. Don't involve your parents on the night.

3. Be prepared to spend a bit of money on tickets, posters, free sweets or other gimmicks.

4. Know which is your best song - start with it and do it again as an encore.

5. Agree a set list and practise the songs in the same order over many weeks.

6. Practise eye contact with the audience. Don't look at the floor or your guitar.

7. Look happy, cute,  angry, cocky or sexy. Choose one, or vary throughout the set.

8. Avoid on-stage clich├ęs. Don't ask the audience how they are. Get on with it. 

9. Make sure guitars are in tune, and be able to tune quickly onstage if needed.

10. Practise moving about while playing. Get someone to film you rehearsing.

11. The drummer should show character by waving, shouting etc occasionally.

12. Tell the audience you want them to dance, or move closer or clap or whatever.

13. Avoid stimulants. You need to be able to perform without if you're going to survive.

14. Look as if you love each other and are having a fantastic time, however bad it is.

15. Get as many people to talk/share with others about the 'amazing' gig then do it again soon.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

PO! – First recordings: flexi-discs1988

My ambition for PO! was serious; that's why I paid for a Post Office Box so that we could receive letters and not have people knowing where I lived. I also thought it made us look very professional.

PO! recorded three tracks for a demo tape, funded by Leicester City Council and sold copies of the cassette at gigs. As a result, someone called Charlie offered to make a flexi-disc to go with his fanzine ‘Samantha’ The songs were 'Confidence' and 'Appleseed Alley'. At this time, before the Internet and social media, the only ways to find out about new indie bands were through fanzines and John Peel’s Radio 1 show. The mainstream music press, such as the NME also promoted a small number of ‘next big things’ according to the whims of the writers.

The PO! flexi peeking out from Samantha Fanzine

Fanzine Charlie was a lovely person; he was so dedicated to promoting new bands and single minded in his efforts to make his fanzine successful. In fact, he’s the only person I’ve ever known who bought his own photocopy machine, which stood just outside the kitchen in his small flat on Leicester’s Saxby Street. Charlie explained how easy and cheap it was to get a flexi-disc manufactured, and straightaway, I decided to make one myself and start a record company.

It was not long before John Peel played the Samantha flexi, and read out our contact address and this resulted in a flurry of letters and requests for more information. Some of the first people who wrote to us remained fans and friends for many years. Having investigated the cost of producing vinyl records and flexi-discs, it seemed to be relatively cheap to make a 12” LP and so that became the long term aim. In the meantime, Julian, Jan and I played as many gigs as we could, including Leicester, Nottingham and Derby. We attracted lots of positive attention at gigs and through PO Box 132. At some point in 1988, we had received 7 fan letters so of course, I made a list. Wonder where these guys are now?

At that time, there were government grants available for people setting up their own small businesses – the Enterprise Allowance scheme. You had to prove you had £1000 in the bank and some kind of plan, and then you qualified for a weekly allowance. I didn’t have £1000, but I did know someone who agreed to transfer the money into my new Rutland Records bank account and then have it paid back again a week later. The name Rutland Records came from ‘Rutland Avenue’ in Leicester, where my friends in The Originals lived, but it also refers to England's smallest county, which is next to Leicestershire, measuring about 20 miles across and is a symbol of English eccentricity and doing things small-style. 

Ruth Miller on the border between English counties: Leicestershire and Rutland

The Originals: Rags, Yvonne, Kevin and Gary were a really well-rehearsed zany band who shared rehearsal premises with PO! This was a basement on the corner of Chatham Street and Stamford Street, underneath a clothing factory. Now, there are student flats there, but you can still see the load out bay we used when doing gigs. The Originals rehearsed every night; their sound was like a more rock version of The Smiths or Talking Heads, with childlike talk-singing from Gary. I admired their work ethic and made Julian and Jan rehearse more than they liked to. At about 10.15pm each night, we would all go into the nearby pub ‘The Black Boy’ for a drink.

PO! first release on Rutland Rceo

The first Rutland Records release was a 1988 shared flexi-disc between PO! and The Originals. The PO! song was 'Glass King', recorded at Dave Davis' home studio (credited as Wolfman De Moog III). Dave was the partner of Teri Wyncoll, from the community arts organisation Multiplex. By the time of recording, Julian and Jan had left PO! and so the musicians from The Originals acted as my backing band.

With home computers and dot matrix printers in an early stage, artwork had to be produced by hand. This involved using Letraset rub down lettering. You bought a sheet of the font that you wanted and rubbed over each letter to transfer it onto the paper. The sheets were quite expensive, and after a couple of years, the plastic letters dried up and cracked, but there was something artisan and time-consuming about Letraset that pleased me.

A recently acquired teddy bear 'Larry Rutland' belonging to Rags from the Originals became the boss of Rutland Records; he is pictured on the Originals' side of the flexi and also wrote the sleeve notes. Most of the Rutland newsletters and information were printed on red paper; even then I had some idea of 'branding' within a supposedly amateurish tiny business.

inner sleeve from the first Rutland release PO!/Originals flexi

The next few months were spent in a delightful game that was just like 'playing at shops' when I was a kid. I set up a mini office in my flat with an old typewriter and the latest BBC B computer, and visited the PO Box every day to pick up the mail. Then there was a weekly trip to office supply shops to get paper, envelopes, Letraset and other stationery essentials. The photocopy shop was downstairs from my flat at 122 London Road, Leicester, so I got good deals on printing out newsletters, posters and cassette sleeves. At the same time, I was writing songs and deciding which ones I wanted to record with The Originals as backing musicians for the PO! vinyl LP. How could we record and manufacture it for the lowest possible cost?
The Rutland Records Bear Mail Stamp: edited due to comments in section below!

Nineteen Gigs played by PO! in 1988

January 22nd         Princess Charlotte 
February 6th          O'Jays
February 13th       Town Hall Square Rally
March 12th           Granby Halls
March 19th           O'Jays
May 7th                Princess Charlotte
May 15th             Derby, The Cockpitt
May 20th             Derby ? unknown venue
May 28th             Princess Charlotte
June 23rd            Nottingham ? unknown venue
July 22nd            O'Jays
August 13th        Abbey Park Festival
August 18th        Nottingham, Peggars Inn
August 27th        O'Jays
September 7th    Clause 28 Benefit
September 8th    Nottingham Peggars Inn
October 27th      Gig with Brand New Executives (unknown venue)
November 3rd    Princess Charlotte
November 12    London Hype

Sunday, 22 February 2015

PO! Early Days 1987

I wanted to make a new band fuelled by my own shell-shock. After a long, plain and lovely childhood, I had suddenly encountered the cruelty of the world and been badly affected by a short spell of 'adult bullying'. Suddenly I could see terrible treatment and inequalities everywhere and I had to tell the world about it.

From my 'Spare Rib' Diary of 1987, it looks like I auditioned drummer Marc Fuccio as a potential new drummer for The Soviets but then hijacked him to form PO! with bass player Julian Glover in February. We practised at Archway Studios initially, with Julian coming round to my flat on Highfield Street, Leicester to write songs.  I did not have much furniture, so we sat on the floor. The first time, I came up with a song called 'Fairweather Fowl'. Like PO! songs until the very end, the mood was anger, sweetly sung. 

In those early days, I wrote the song 'Danny's Girl' in an attempt to portray how you can love someone who is abusive and get trapped in a terrible cycle. I had a clear purpose in writing songs like these to express myself, but chose Julian and Marc to play bass and drums respectively for convenience rather than as soulmates. Marc was in demand as a drummer and was in 5 other bands at the time. 

An early PO! rehearsal at Archway Studios, Bath Lane, Leicester

The three of us were keen to promote ourselves and decided to do things in a significant way, by bursting onto the Leicester scene. This consisted of writing and rehearsing songs, booking a big Saturday night gig at the premier big pub venue The Princess Charlotte and a massive fly-posting campaign.

The name PO! served two purposes. The name actually came from Post Office, but we liked it because it meant lots of different things in other languages. There are references to Edward De Bono, but we also used it generally to mean Piss Off! The second advantage of a short name is that you can print it BIG on an A4 poster and be seen from across the street.

PO! in the area of Leicester that is now the cultural quarter

I had pinched the idea for the fly-posting campaign from Manchester, where I'd recently seen mass fly-posting and graffiti from The Stone Roses. Although I was not familiar with that band at the time, the impact was obvious, and I wanted to see my posters all over the city. It was a classic teaser campaign, with plain PO! posters going up weeks before the gig details were posted.

       In those days, fly-posting was a cool part of local band culture. We'd mix up a bucket of wallpaper paste and dress in dark clothes to go out at night. I would usually slop the paste about, then Julian would slap the brightly-coloured poster on. Back then, local bands seemed to think that paper only came in white. My flat was above a photocopy shop and so I harnessed the power of brightly-coloured A4 to ensure our success. Just before PO! played a gig, Marc was asked to choose between PO! and his other bands, and he left. Fortunately I had met a great woman drummer called Jan Frazer, who quickly learned the songs and liked the pro-female stance of the band. 

Jan Frazer, Julian Glover, Ruth Miller
PO!'s debut gig was at The Princess Charlotte, Leicester on Saturday 18th July 1987. We aimed to make our first gig different from your average local band debut. We paid to have the same kind of tickets as professional touring bands. My idea was to have scenery in the form of massive cut-out objects that referred to each of the songs. I painted large neon-coloured paintings on thick board, cut them to shape and we hung these from the ceiling. Sadly, I don't think anyone took any photos of these or the gig. We got the local paper to write about us and so PO! began.

The Princess Charlotte pub in Leicester

became premier pub venue  The Charlotte

A list of gigs by PO! in 1987

18.7.87      Princess Charlotte
8.8.87        Highfields Community Centre (Gay Pride)
10.8.87      The Cooler
15.8.87      Abbey Park Festival
27.8.87      Royal Mail
31.8.87      Abbey Park Show
2.9.87        O'Jays 
17.9.87      Royal Mail
26.9.87     Worcester Summer's End Festival with Hawkwind
8.10.87       Leicester University
16.10.87     O'Jays
28.11.87     O'Jays
5.12.87       Palace Theatre Newark
6.12.87      Leicester Polytechnic