Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Cannibals: "Slow Down"

This is the oldest clip of me on YouTube. I was 19. I remember it very well: I had tuning problems, a guitar string had slipped and you can see me crouching down by my amp during the second verse of  the song. I had it tuned when it slipped again just at the start of my solo. I lost my temper! You can see the result...
(Mike Spenser - vocals/ myself and Johnnie Walker on guitars/ Jeff Mead on bass/ Gary Stannard on drums.)

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Beatles Decca Audition

(written 1st January 2012)

Fifty years ago today, a sgraggy little removal van appeared in the streets of West Hampstead, London. Its driver had been up all night, driving down from Liverpool. In those days there was no proper motorway link between the two cities so the journey took at least eight hours. It was freezing cold and there was no effective heating in the van. The pep pills had worn off just as it began to get light and the sense of fatigue was palpable. In the back of the van were four young men aged between 18 and 21, draped precariously across a selection of battered and primitive amplifiers and instrument cases for guitars and drums, many of which were held together by masking tape. The boys weight, lurching and shifting about with the bends of the road, made it seem almost inevitable that something or someone would be thrown to the floor or the walls of the van and broken or injured. Miraculously, this never seemed to really occur. Perhaps it was the atmosphere of excitement that magnetized solid objects into behaving and occasionally defying the laws of gravity. The boys had not been able to sleep. They were tired, very tired. They had done a long gig the night before in Liverpool and piled straight into the van for the trip to London without time to go home and rest or even change their clothes. They had all (with one exception) taken handfuls of slimming pills to stay awake but even without the amphetamines they would have found it hard to sleep. Discomfort be damned, this was the day The Beatles were going to audition for a recording contract with Decca Records. Their first shot at the big time. Discussions about what to perform had been long and rowdy. Their leader had wanted to stick to the numbers that most pleased their audiences: solid rock'n'roll with a ballad or two from his sidekick. The junior member could do a bit of Buddy Holly and the drummer's opinion didn't count and was not solicited. The drummer was the only one who had managed to get any sleep and the others hated him for not being excited enough to stay awake (the fact that he had refused, as usual, any chemical stimulants only added to his pariah status). But then their manager - urbane, older, well versed in showbusiness - had thrown a spanner in the works. He had pointed out that rock'n'roll was all very well for the ballrooms and the pubs but if they wanted a career in showbusiness, as they undoubtedly did, they should set their sights on Light Entertainment. That way they could get regular work on BBC radio and television. What did they have up their sleeves that other provincial rock'n'roll bands didn't? Original material, yes, but who broke through in Britain with original material, songs that no-one had ever heard? No, it was their eccentric selection of showtunes and obscure standards, jammed roughly into shape to pad out the endless hours of their Hamburg performances that they should concentrate on for their audition. Lennon was aghast. Brian couldn't be serious. But he could tell from Paul's reaction that the decision made sense. So a compromise was struck. Grimly putting his shoulder to the wheel, he helped Paul and George put together a list that would include such non-rock'n'roll fare as "September In The Rain" and "The Sheik Of Araby". They should ham it up, Brian said. They loved The Goons, didn't they? Let it show. Lennon perked up at that. An opportunity for silly voices always put him in a good mood. He could still do "Money", just to show how hard they could be, and Paul could do "Searchin'". Only trouble was, now that they were approaching London, it became clear that both his and Paul's voices were shot. They had colds, they had sung too long the night before (and the night before that), they were coming down off speed. God... What were they going to do? George would have to sing a lot more than just one number if they were going to get through this. Brian wouldn't like that. But there was nothing for it. He broke the news to George who just grinned. Lennon chuckled grimly to himself - they were so fuckin' good it would take more than a couple of colds to ruin their audition...

Mal was asking directions - again. They were running out of time. Where the fuck is West Hampstead anyway? At this rate, they wouldn't even get any breakfast. Never mind, they weren't hungry. They finally found the studio. Disgorging themselves from the van, limbs aching, they then had to hump the amplifiers up a flight of rickety stairs. The weather was foul. Frost and rain, freezing wind. Brian appeared, looking indecently rested, having spent the night in a London hotel. Impeccable as ever, camel hair coat, suit and tie, shaved, drenched in cologne. "Where have you been?" he started fretting and fussing. Lennon glared at him and he shut up like a trap. "Got lost", said Neil. That was all the explanation Brian was going to get and he knew better than to ask for more. The Decca engineers were salty and irritable at having to work on New Year's Day but when they saw the raggedness of The Beatles a degree of compassion crept into their demeanour and they even found themselves helping to lug the gear. Setting up, however, proved a nightmare. The amplifiers had not enjoyed the trip. The extreme changes of temperature drastically increased their usual rattles and crackles. The engineers were ready to pull the session on the grounds of equipment failure but, once again, looking at The Beatles faces, they found they didn't have the heart to do it. The first takes were atrocious. Out of tune, out of time, voices ragged, mic technique non-existent. The engineers declared a break for coffee. Brian and The Beatles huddled together in a corner of the studio - as though for warmth. Brian mothered them, cajoled them, scolded them, encouraged them, believed in them. They drank coffee and smoked cigarettes. Brian withdrew to the control room and they resumed. This time things went better. A few usable takes started to appear in the can. They breezed through the tunes they had decided upon. Lennon did his Charles Hawtrey in "The Shiek Of Araby" and Brian laughed out loud. The engineers smiled. The producer looked delighted. It was just beginning to go their way when time ran out. McCartney's pleas for one more take of "September In The Rain" were ignored. Copies of the tape were made. Brian would get an acetate through the post. One of the Londoners, a Decca staffer, said the words: "We'll let you know."