The Grand Return of the Electric Banana from Space

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.

I Sing The Body Electric Guitar

Secrets – we all have them.  For some, a secret is an idea; a piece of information we carry in our souls.  Others hide their secrets in a deep, dark and inaccessible emotional cavern that, with any luck, will never be found.  That’s all right for some.  For others, however, a secret is less existential as it is physical.  And whether you hide that thing in a roof cavity or bury it in a backyard, someone’s going to find it eventually. For me, my deepest, darkest secret is on DVD.

I know how that sounds – as though I’ve been part of something truly salacious or, worse still, was once a contestant on ‘Married At First Sight’, but no.  My secret is much more disturbing than that.  It involves things that, all this time later, I find it difficult if not impossible to face up to.  But as dark as a secret might be, there comes a time when a secret must be shared with someone else, either in the interests of transparency or to give them one last chance to get out whilst they still can.  That time had arrived.

Have you ever seen that footage of the Loch Ness monster?  It’s grainy and weird and it’s hard to be sure you’re seeing what you think you’re seeing.  This footage is almost identical except that it includes guitars and a mullet.  Or, to be precise, my mullet; in all its bouncy, resplendent glory.  And a saxophone.  (It was, after all, the eighties, when the law required that every emotional apex and valley had to be accompanied by the honking rich sounds of a saxophone.)  Put another way; imagine if the Loch Ness monster had, rather than simply tentatively sticking his head out of the water, been a teenager fronting a band. Then you’ll get the idea.

I suppose I should just come right out and say it – I was in a rock band as a teenager.  If that doesn’t horrify you, then there are some additional pieces of information I feel I ought to disclose.  The first is that we were no regular teenage rock band.  Covers of ‘Wild Thing’ and ‘Louie Louie’ weren’t for us. Nor did we bang out sketchy versions of Australian Crawl or Cold Chisel songs.  In fact, we didn’t do covers songs at all.  We only performed originals.

If that’s not enough to inspire you to spontaneously stuff marshmallows into your ears, I’m not sure what would.  As teenagers, we looked around at the other bands and the abysmal but crowd-pleasing covers they were doing and decided that we’d write our own songs.  It was a breathtakingly arrogant thing to do.  On a practical note (F# most likely), it wasn’t just that we were ambitious; some of us were limited in terms of our musical abilities and were incapable of playing the songs of others.  If you can’t imitate, you must create.  So we did.

The second key fact is this: we were a band that met at church and all our song lyrics were religious.  No, really.  To the extent that it was technically possible to accumulate cool points for being in a rock band, they vanished the moment we opened our mouths.  We wanted to be cool.  We thought we were cool.  But by any objective measure, we were not cool and this DVD is proof of that.

Originally, it would have been shot on video.  As a result, the images are somewhat unstable and, once in a while, a line of interference runs down the screen like a picture with a bad aerial.  We are playing in a church hall in Cheltenham.  Presumably, we were there to keep ‘the kids’ off the mean streets of Southland or similar.  That said, it is also possible that our music inspired some to a life of crime. I couldn’t blame them.  We were introduced by some incredibly uncool looking fellow who, most likely, was the leader of the local Youth Group. Then we hit the stage.

I was wearing a suit vest and had a mop of hair that might as well have been on loan from Princess Diana.  All our songs had long, serious neo-classical synthesizer introductions, to create a suitably joyless atmosphere.  We were a serious band with a serious message. That message should probably have been ‘block your ears’, but it wasn’t.  As the neo-classical synth intro came to an end, the guitars and drums kicked in.  As the lead singer, it was my job to be a focal point.  I achieved this by reacting as though a large amount of electricity had just been directed through my body.  It was not pretty.  

It’s inevitable – there’s a point in any relationship where you’ve got to drag out the skeletons lest they should be discovered at some future point and you’re accused of concealing something.  As I played the DVD, I’ll admit I found it difficult to watch.  That, primarily, was because I was incapable of removing my hands from my face.  Beside me, the footage was greeted with sensitivity. In particular, the kind of sensitivity that involves falling off the couch with uncontrollable fits of laughter.  Which is fair enough.

We leave our past behind for a reason.  But it’s still very much a part of us, no matter what we do.  And to share that with someone else and have them accept it is a mighty thing indeed.  It’s thirty-five years since that performance. It may well be another thirty-five years before I can watch that DVD again.  Here’s hoping.

The DIY Acid Wash Wipeout

To be honest, I’d forgotten.  But all it took was a split second and thirty years of time travel for it to come back to me with all the force of a meteorite.  Without warning, it appeared on my phone, sent by a friend.  A photograph. Not just of me, but of the band I was in as a teenager.  It would have been about 1986 or so and I was all of fourteen years old.  My eyes were immediately drawn to my trousers where there was an uncomfortable truth to confront – I was wearing acid wash jeans.

For those who’ve never been in a band photo, there are a few things you ought to know.  Band photos are the antithesis of a ‘happy snap’. It’s not enough to take a picture of a musical group gathered around as the drummer blows out the candles on his birthday cake.  In the eighties especially, band photos were a super serious business.  You had to look as though the weight of the world was on your shoulders, which it probably was, because of the massive shoulder pads you were wearing.  

We were publicizing our first major gig – playing on the back of a flatbed truck in a children’s playground in Balnarring.  Granted, it’s not exactly the Tennis Centre, but most major concerts don’t have a fully functioning seesaw like ours did.  The photo was taken on the road outside the Hastings Uniting Church, which we had used for rehearsals; having, as it did, both a stage and a public address system.  As a bonus, the pulpit was the ideal place to set your lyrics out.  But a photo inside the church wouldn’t pass muster.  No way.  The photo needed to capture our raw fourteen-year-old intensity, which, at the time, was bubbling away like nobody’s business akin to a forgotten casserole left on the cooker of humanity.  Or, instead of intensity, it could have just been hormones.  Whatever the case, the photo needed to capture it.

As a result, we stood on the street.  By which I don’t mean that we stood politely on the footpath as if waiting for a bus to arrive but, rather, smack, bang in the middle of the road; an obstacle to on-coming traffic. I don’t know how long it took us to make the photographer happy, but the second thing I noticed (after my acid wash jeans) was the car creeping over our drummer, Chris’s, shoulder.

I know, I know.  There’s no need to be ashamed at the fact of having worn acid wash jeans.  It was the eighties and wearing acid wash clothing, together with a ‘Fido Dido’ or ‘Hypercolour’ t-shirt was as good as compulsory.  But these were no ordinary acid wash.  These, to my great shame, were homemade acid wash jeans.  

Home made acid wash jeans are significant for a number of reasons.  Firstly, there’s no one else to blame for the results. And, secondly, it reveals a grim desperation to achieve acid wash status. I appreciate this must confound younger readers who have grown up hearing tales of their parents being forced to wear acid wash when, in actual fact, we quested after acid wash denim as if our lives depended on it.  Acid wash jeans are much like greatness.  Some are born to acid wash denim, others have acid wash denim thrust upon them.  Others like me, however, took matters into our own hands.

Today’s generation probably can’t get their heads around this kind of ingenuity.  I don’t want to big note myself, but it’s fair to describe my DIY acid wash as next level MacGuyver-esque genius.  First of all, you get a bucket, cram your jeans in and pour over some bleach and leave it to soak.  Then, critically, you must thoroughly wash the jeans before wearing them unless you want to suffer permanent scarring below the hips. (Although those chemicals can help with the high notes.)

Clearly, I was so pleased with my efforts that I wore my acid wash jeans, along with my (acid-wash free) denim jacket to our very first band photo session.  That’s right – not only did I ‘double denim’, I did so in two completely incompatible styles.  At the time, I thought I was super cool.  In retrospect, I’m amazed that the car visible over Chris’s shoulder didn’t immediately speed up and start tooting its horn with the aim of scattering us like chickens.  I knew so little then.

As for the concert, I take my share of responsibility.  Namely, I must reconcile myself to the fact that there are probably people who attended our gig in the Balnarring playground more than thirty years ago who, to this day, hate music as a result.  And avoid seesaws at all costs.  I probably wore the homemade acid wash jeans to the gig proper, which, at least, may have distracted from the music, at least for a little while. 

And as for that photo? Once you get past the super-serious facial expressions that border on pouting, the flagrant double denim and homemade acid wash, I actually like it a lot.  It was the first tangible evidence to the outside world that we were a band.  Unified in purpose. Bound together by music. Shrouded in acid wash.  If it was a fashion statement, it mostly consisted of profanities, but that’s okay.  We were a real band.  And, for the moment, that was enough.