I used to know how to do this. I was fourteen when I first started playing music in public, sometimes on my own, more often with others. There’s nothing else quite like it; the nerves, the sense of anticipation, the journey of playing a group of songs to an audience. How it feels when people respond enthusiastically. How it feels when they don’t. Broken strings, squealing feedback, thunderous applause and profound silence – I’ve experienced all these things when making music. But all that experience counts for little when you stop. In my case, I stopped for a couple of decades.
I was barely a teenager when I joined my first band. A couple from church were in need of a keyboard player and I had a full set of fingers and a lot of time on my hands. They were adults, which meant they were responsible for almost every aspect of band-life. They had all the equipment, chose the songs and even picked me up for rehearsals. All I had to do was listen to a cassette and learn the songs. I would describe my efforts as ‘hit and miss’. For the songs I liked, I got my parts down just right. For those I didn’t, I relied on either inspiration or, possibly, ‘the Force’ to guide me. Unfortunately, that guidance was not forthcoming and the resulting cacophony almost ended my musical career before it started.
Our first gig was in Balnarring. It was in the room behind the church where they usually served tea and cold pikelets after the service. On this occasion, there wasn’t a pikelet in sight, which, I feel, largely accounts for the indifferent reaction of the audience. I do recall dressing up for the occasion, in a short-sleeved yellow shirt with black highlights and my best acid wash. The shirt was my ‘good shirt’ – the one I wore whenever I was trying to make an impression – presumably an impression of a space-age banana.
Being invited into someone else’s band was one thing – having a band of your own is a different experience entirely. We were all members of the same youth group. One summer, we decided that we really ought to be a band, partly because we each played an instrument and partly because mixed netball had yet to be invented. We attempted a couple of covers, but I think we knew from the outset that we’d be performing original music.
Original music is a tricky business. On the one hand, the world loves a covers band. Most people like to hear a song they already know, even if the song in question is being butchered into oblivion. There are lots of gigs for cover bands. But you can only go so far playing covers. Original music, however, is all about integrity. You stay true to your artistic vision in the knowledge that it’s harder to get a gig and that, when you do, you’re either playing to an audience that is either indifferent or (possibly) non-existent.
We quickly started writing our own songs. Some of them were all right. Others weren’t quite as good. Our first major gig would be at Balnarring, although instead of a small room behind the church, we were playing on the back of a flatbed truck parked strategically at the playground beside the local caravan park. I’m not sure what the people of Balnarring had done to deserve us, but they were going to cop an earful whether they wanted to or not. And, aside from our total lack of experience and limited musicianship, we were desperately underprepared.
We had a chronic shortage of songs. The only way to fix this situation was to write and learn a bunch of tunes in the week before we were due to play. What could possibly go wrong? Quite a lot as it turns out.
Amazingly, we managed to write more songs. Learning them was a challenge, but we did our best. To fill for time, we made some desperate choices, such as deciding to perform a drum solo with two people standing at the drum kit. Which, in theory, sounds okay if both of those people can play the drums. Whilst one of the people in question was Chris, our drummer, the other person was me, who barely knew which end of the stick to hold. The end result filled several minutes that would have been better spent in silent contemplation.
Our performance in the Balnarring playground was just the start of an illustrious career in which we played on the back of a variety of flatbed trucks – some moving, others stationary. Occasionally, we’d begin our performance whilst stationary before being persuaded by the audience response to start the engine and drive somewhere else. Eventually we moved on to other types of venues, like roller rinks, where the patrons were moving whilst we were standing still.
I’ve moved on from acid wash. Mostly. But all this time later, I have another band, albeit with one other person, and we were scheduled to play at the Newport Folk Festival. There were so many questions – could I remember an entire set of songs and perform them without messing up? (Yes.) Would anyone come? (Some people did, and even more have watched online.) Could I still fit in my electric banana shirt? (No. Not even close.) I was a little nervous, but it felt oddly normal. Natural, even. Without even knowing it, I think I might even have missed it. I was glad to be back. It turns out, some things may disappear for a time, but they never really vanish. I’m grateful. Our next gig will be in Balnarring. Probably.