Built to last

This is a story about a love affair.

Before you navigate hastily back from when you came, allow me to reassure you: you are not to be subjected to 6,500 words of repetitive, mournful self-interrogation about the failure of a relationship.

I recently gave up a Sunday so I could travel 50 miles, to what was essentially a warehouse, in order to sit in a small and extremely warm room for 9 hours before undertaking a proper activity for about 25 minutes.

I’d do it again, in a heartbeat. This is a story about why.

The most important pub quiz I never attended

Sometime around 2006 (clear timelines aren’t my speciality), my best mate, Chris, was attending the Rufus T Firefly pub quiz with a motley group of his pals. One of those people, also named David, was bemoaning a frustrating spot he found himself in.

This conversation has been edited by the author for dramatic purposes (and on account of having the barest knowledge of what was actually said).

“We can’t get a singer for our band anywhere,” David told Chris despondently. “We’ve tried a bunch of people since the last singer left, but nothing’s really worked. If we don’t get someone soon, I think we’ll just chuck it.”

Chris, supping what was doubtless some poisonous concoction of cider, blackcurrant and white wine, thought for a moment before announcing: “My friend’s a singer.”

David’s ears perked up. “Yeah?” he responded.

“Oh yeah,” Chris continued, warming to his theme. “He sings karaoke all the time.”

Inside his chest, David felt a briefly-hopeful heart sink. “Karaoke,” he repeated.

“Yeah. The Commitments and stuff.”

David stared at his pint. Without a singer, the band would disappear anyway. As painful as it was to consider a 2 hour audition for some lagered-up karaoke enthusiast, there was ultimately nothing to lose in trying the guy out, except a little self respect.

Limbering up his metaphorical arm for a last throw of the dice, he said: “OK. We can try him out.”

“We don’t know any covers.”

I’m not typically intimidated by social situations, but this was different.

For years, I had been singing my way through life. Throughout this time, I mostly ignored the idle scorn of my friends (boys can be so cruel, etc) on the basis that they weren’t really qualified to say whether I was a good singer or not. I thought I was quite good, I got a favourable reaction at karaoke… that was enough for me.

Now, I found myself standing in a room with four complete strangers; all of whom had known each other for 10+ years; all of whom were accomplished musicians; all of whom had been in bands since they were old enough to drink. These guys had played with loads of singers. If they thought I was nothing to write home about, that judgement would be pretty final and pretty crushing.

Intimidated would be a pretty good encapsulation of how I felt.

In the run-up to my audition, I had corresponded with David (rhythm guitar) and Kev (bass) in an attempt to diminish the daunting trial ahead. We had discussed how the audition might work – and naturally, I had grasped for something, anything familiar.

Dave: What songs can you play that I might know?

The guys: Uuhh… we kind of do our own stuff.

Dave: Sure, but it would be good to test the water with something we both know.

The guys: We don’t know any covers.

Well, this was awkward.

Dave: None at all? Nothing that I might know?

The guys, after a long pause: We’ll have a think.

Eventually, since we were all of a certain age, we settled on two grunge-era staples. I spent some time singing these through to myself but, frankly, felt wholly unprepared as I stood in front of a microphone stand for the first time.

I have never done ‘proper singing’, chanted the voice in my head repeatedly. I have never done ‘a real band’.

After some brief chit-chat, during which I was introduced to the two gents I’d been corresponding with plus Bernie (lead guitar) and Matt (drums), the band struck up the opening chords of Nirvana’s ‘About a girl’. I took a couple of deep breaths and waited for my cue.

Barfly, both times

The first time we played Barfly in Glasgow, I had never seen a venue so packed. It was only our second gig together and my expectations of probable attendance were completely demolished. There were two driving factors behind this remarkable crowd-pulling feat:

  1. We did an outstanding job, all five of us, of convincing friends to come out and see us… a feat we have mimicked only a few times since in our storied history.
  2. We were on the bill with 3 other bands working similarly hard – and one of them was literally giving away tickets at a loss of £4 per scalp. Ouch.

We were first on and there were around 200 people in front of us, seething around the bar and watching the stage. It was electrifying.

I’ve personally found over time that playing to one man and his dog is nerve-wracking, but singing in front of big crowds is inspiring. That night we thundered through the set, me belting out the lyrics from within a wall of sound as Matt, on the kit behind me, did his damndest to alter the rhythm of my heartbeat with drum strikes that literally rattled my ribcage. It was awesome.

The second time we played Barfly, there were less people, but it was more important.

“Who have you got coming?” Kev asked me in the studio.

“A mate from work,” I replied. “She’s through on a night out with her pals and said she’d bring them along.”

That was a half-truth at best. The lady in question was not simply ‘a mate from work’, but rather the object of a snowballing affection on my part which made impressing her absolutely paramount. At this stage, I was convinced that she was doing me a favour by swinging by, and crossing my fingers that I might get some kudos for being a singer in a rock band.

Of course, in retrospect, it seems obvious that:

  • Dragging your pals to the wrong end of town…
  • …after they’ve come through from Edinburgh…
  • …to see a band which plays music you frankly couldn’t care less about…
  • …then hang around with them all night

…isn’t really the modus operandi of a person who thinks of you simply as ‘a mate from work’ either. She arrived early with friends in tow, all dressed up for a night on the town, watched us with good grace, politely complimented the performance as far as she could, then joined us for a jaunt to the ABC in Sauciehall street.

We had a great night, albeit I managed to upset her a bit toward the end by being an idiot, but her gesture of support in coming to see us was much appreciated. I appreciated all the other times she came out thereafter, up to and including the time she brought David for his first (in utero) exposure to the Old Man’s crooning.

Hilariously, it has become clear over time that she likes me despite my being a singer in a rock band.

A whirlwind in a ginger wig

A ripple of laughter spread around the room as I let the enormous, shapeless, floral-print dress drop over my head and produced a huge mop of acrylic red curls from the plastic bag at my feet. As I lowered them solemnly onto my head, like a crown laden with history and symbolism, a gent leapt up from the crowd toward me.

“Here mate,” he barked excitedly, fumbling the legs of his girlfriend’s ostentatious black and gold sunglasses over my ears, “wear these an’aw.” My image was complete.

Jimmy, the second man to hold the dubious honour of being our drummer, struck a brief count; the rest of the boys joined in with gusto; I struck a pose and delivered my line in enthusiastic falsetto:

WHY DON’T YOU FOOL ME, FEED ME, SAY YOU NEED ME… WITHOUT WICKED GAMES?

The next few minutes were a blur of Girls Aloud, delighted shrieks and the disgrace to transvestitism that was my performance as a whole. I have vague memories of mimicking the famous dance routine which accompanied the song in its original music video, of advancing on my hands and knees toward friends who didn’t know whether to laugh or scream – and of enjoying myself an indecent amount.

When the final notes were struck, we looked at each other and listened to the crowd reaction. Original music was our thing, but from that moment on we were no longer a band which ‘didn’t do covers’.

The important compliments

We finished our set, in the battle of the bands final at Capitol, with (You’ve just been sold a car by) Ron Jeremy. There was a huge amount of energy in the room, even though most of the crowd was present to see the other bands; we enjoyed a really good reception, rather than just the standard polite applause.

I came off stage pleased with the performance, but with no expectation of winning. These things are typically decided by audience support and I was under no illusions that the throng of teenage girls filling the room had forced the doors in order to see us; one of our younger and more glamorous contemporaries would be taking home the spoils on this occasion.

Standing outside the front door, cooling off and chatting with some of the other performers while the next band set up, I was accosted by a gent in his 50s who said simply: “Listen mate, I’m here for my son’s band, but the first two songs and the last one you played were unbelievable. Absolutely brilliant.”

Without further ado, he turned 180 degrees and marched back downstairs to the venue.

Later that night, his son’s band won the entire event. I don’t remember the band’s name, or what they played, but my self-serving memory recalls that exchange as clearly as if it were yesterday…

Something to hold on to

My constant refrain, throughout 6 years of singing for the band, has been: “We should do more recordings.”

I have some very simple reasons for this insistence:

  • I want to have a version of us that isn’t at the mercy of suspect equipment or a disinterested sound engineer.
  • I want to be able to share ‘us’, in the most visceral way, with the people who ask me what kind of band are you in?
  • I want to be able to look back fondly on what we’ve done in years to come – and potentially even inflict our back catalogue on my son.

At the core of these reasons is a belief that we make tunes which are worth listening to.

These are the feelings which drove me from my warm bed, to a much smaller, warmer room on an industrial estate. They kept me in that room, bantering, listening and observing as my colleagues and friends painstakingly built up our tunes in layers of tone and percussion over a period of 9 hours. Eventually, a little dehydrated and full of junk food, they pushed me in front of a microphone and coaxed vocal sounds from me like a patient and supportive parent.

I make it sound like an ordeal, but the truth is far different: singing is a pleasure, to my mind, no matter how long one has to wait to do it. Perhaps that makes me a madman, but there it is.

Built to last

At 32 years of age, I have no pretensions to rock stardom; but no matter how much I tell myself it’s just a hobby, my gut keeps pulling me back to the microphone, over and over.

I keep returning each week, with my co-conspirators, to bash out just a few more songs or tighten up just one more set. Periodically, I tell myself to enjoy it while it lasts, because eventually I’ll be too old and I’ll have to pack it in for the sake of my dignity – but I’ve been saying that for 6 years now and I’ll probably still be repeating it when we hit our first decade.

The truth is that dignity and ‘aging gracefully’ are concepts for other people: people who don’t love it as much as I do, or those for whom commercial success was the prize rather than solid friendships and the feeling of satisfaction that comes from having built something together.

Southpaw, our haphazard, hard-rocking, exercise in melody is certainly a love affair… but not of the tragic, ‘she wakes up from the sleeping draught just as I stab myself’ kind lionised in great works of fiction.

It’s of the ‘still making you a cup of tea as we watch telly in our retirement village’ variety, there through musical thick and thin, built to last. I mean to enjoy every minute.

Southpaw’s new EP, Counter Culture, will be launched on Friday 9 November at Glasgow’s 13th Note cafe. Come and be a part of it.