I’ve never been a hundred per cent sure what drives it. It must be like church. Someone stands at the front, often dressed differently to the way he or she would normally look and tells the assembly what he or she thinks. In the case of the priest, the preaching is apparently channeling God’s wisdom for the benefit of those who want to do the right thing, so there’s an argument to say it’s not really what he thinks but more what God thinks. I don’t know about that but I do know that when someone sings in a band, mostly, it’s a cry for help. Let’s face it, if you’re going to stand there at the microphone, it’s probably more about you needing an audience than the audience needing you. That’s how it starts anyway. Whilst Bruce Springsteen is up there channeling Woody Guthrie for all he’s worth, part of him is still trying to impress his Dad; Bono is probably trying to impress God and his mum and Axl Rose is probably desperate to get one over on all his mates who told him he was shit. I think perhaps only the modern generation of TV talent wannabes are free of this needy urge because their souls have been rinsed in mogul-piss and even their initially healthy self-obsession has been burned on the alter of product development. They lay bare only futility and manipulation.
It’s certain that for the real tortured frontman-soul, an inferiority complex will play its part somewhere and I distinctly remember that mine kicked in at around the time Huw Heywood learned to play the guitar. Privately I’d made a number of attempts to tame the instrument but had floundered in my attempts to achieve anything much more than a one-fingered, one string version of Smoke on the Water. Seeing and hearing my friend move easily between the chords of Highway To Hell brought forth high praise from my lips but inside, although not exactly tearing me up, it punched a hole. As his repertoire broadened and my ham-fists clenched, I realised that something had to be done. My Dad had been a better footballer than me and he was still a better cricketer, Huw was definitely cleverer AND could play the guitar and everyone else (I imagined) was going about their business becoming much cooler than me. Faced with this hardly-life-threatening level of insecurity, I took a literally life-changing decision. Imagine – you’re mate is good at the guitar, so you end up eschewing a life of proper jobs, property, money and security, to prove to the (not remotely interested) world, that you deserve the kind of regard in which you hold the very talented. It’s what I did at the age of eighteen and I’ve never until now (because I didn’t dare) looked back.
So all the while, Bruce is trying to find his place in his art, his family and his nation, Bono is still looking for what he hasn’t found, Axl is large-ing it in the Paradise City and I’m up there wondering if what I do is at least as good as playing the guitar, or scoring a hat-trick on Easter Monday against Rhyl.
Today, as I write, it’s February 20th 2017. 27 years ago today I pulled on my leather strides, strapped up the pointy ankle boots, threw on the paisley shirt, plaited the two-foot ponytail, added a duster coat and walked to the imaginatively named Heath’s Wine Bar in Flackwell Heath. It was dark outside and dark in the bar. I ordered a drink and took a scan of the room, looking for a rock and roll band. I’d answered an advert in the window of Kingfisher music (not Melody Maker – that’s a poetic lie) having moved to High Wycombe only a few weeks before, following the agreed underlining of Thief just before Christmas 1989. The room wasn’t yielding much in the way of cool London-orbital musos, so I considered myself early and leaned on the bar, attempting as much nonchalance as was possible for someone from Bangor, kidding himself that 8 years of hammering round shitholes in ever-decreasing circles, was just the ticket required for success. A tallish man approached me wearing a trench-coat and then a smaller one, who sported a jumper that St Michael himself had probably knitted at his mother’s knee. Steve and Pete. They took me to a table where Hughie, Mo and Andy sat, beige and friendly. They’d guessed it was me, they said… I hadn’t guessed it was them. Today in a couple of hours time, I’m off to rehearsals. Hughie and Pete (still friends) went their ways in 1998 and 2001 respectively but Steve, Mo and Andy will be there tonight and we’ll work on some new material.
The advert was simple. Frontman Wanted – No Beginners. That was me. I was a frontman. Forged by an inability to strum a guitar, moulded on the fly by sheer bravado and galvanised in the ghettos of dying-on-their-arse rock clubs, I was no beginner. They seemed nice enough people but I couldn’t see it. They gave me a cassette and said that if I liked it, would I put some words and tunes on the two instrumental arrangements and then come over to Steve’s house the following week. After another drink and a chat, during which I might have broken the floor tiles with the amount of names I dropped, we parted and I walked back to my room. I left the tape in my pocket and decided to listen to it in the morning.
The house where I was staying had a decent stereo and I had a day off from selling lawnmowers and lifting bags of compost at Beaconsfield garden centre. It was my first job in the sunny South-East and to my delight I had managed to dupe the manager the previous week at my interview, into thinking I was a clean living mower-man with a one-eyed ambition to spend my life in a poly tunnel. This I had achieved by tucking the two foot pony tail down my shirt collar and sidling around his office, remaining ‘front-on’ at all times. I even left the office backing away in the manner of a Japanese businessman, nodding and bowing. When I turned up for my first day and was issued with my pink t-shirt and green store-man’s trousers, he turned puce with rage at the sight of my hair and demanded it cut. No dice mate. If you don’t like it, sell your own lawnmowers, I’m a rock and roll singer. We never saw eye to eye but I sold lawnmowers to the wealthy wives of Beaconsfield and he kept it zipped until the day I moved on. He was called Andrew and he always had spit in the corners of his mouth and crusty sleep in his eyes.
I put the tape on and the opening chords of The Mystic met my ears like a siren song. How on earth had they done this? These people with their M&S jumpers and Clarks shoes? It got to the solo and then it rocked on some more. I was smiling when The Lightbox started and when it finished. Ten minutes was all it took. Song 1 and Song 2. I had The Mystic lyrics already and wrote the lyrics to The Lightbox that morning. I also did some more work on two pieces I was writing called Johnny and The Lightning and Cruel to Be Kind – I though it would pay to have something up my sleeve.
My audition was the definition of excruciation. I sat on Steve’s grey sofa, having first sat heavily on his grey cat. The backing-track cassette was inserted into a little tape recorder and those who would soon be my bandmates of 27 years, bade me sing my offering as the recorder played on my lap. Being a frontman on a sofa isn’t easy. I couldn’t belt it out, so I sat there quietly and stiltedly in a half-croon. They looked on as the colour in my cheeks rose and then, when it was done, sat back with a few non-committal half-nods. Perhaps we could go down to the ‘shed’ at the back of The Flint Cottage and set up with a PA? That would be audition part 2. This time I set up my mixer-head and H and H speakers and shouted my head off as, for the very first time, those two songs were played live. It sounded amazing… to me… They tried to wrong-foot me by handing me some lyrics to a song Steve had written, a blues and after a quick hint at the melody off we went. Piece of piss. From day one at The Angel in Aberystwyth, I’d learned the value of endless blues jams and this was just another one. We retired to the pub proper and sat at a table on ‘the stage’. I asked what they thought then? A few nods and sideways glances and it was done.
On April 13th 1990 we took to the stage of The Pegasus in Marlow Bottom with a well rehearsed set of five songs, supporting The Les Payne Band. Prior to the gig we made a deal. If it doesn’t engage people, we’ll shake hands on it and leave it. There was never a chance of that in my mind. They might not look rock and roll but their music was JUST what I wanted to do and they were receptive to my ideas. The Pegasus crowd didn’t have any choice in the matter and something that I’d finally begun to believe was confirmed. I was a frontman, not a beginner.
Good night ladies and gentlemen. We have been JUMP.