Wednesday, 18 March 2009

The middle-aged pop performer

One thing the songwriting process has taught me is the importance of the passage of time. Songs can be likened to diary entries, and I have found that writing them (for almost thirty years now) has helped sharpen my awareness of the fact that I was like that then and I am like this now.

I am now forty, so I have been around for a while. I don't look the same as when I was eighteen, and I don't act the same. Some changes have been internal, others have been externally imposed.

On my way to buy the paper this evening I saw a teenager sitting on the floor of the bus shelter waiting for her bus. There was a perfectly good seat but she elected to sit on the floor instead.

This is the prerogative of youth.

I like to sit on the floor too, and sometimes at home whilst writing, reading, playing the guitar or listening to mixes, I do. But were I to sit on the floor of the bus shelter whilst waiting for the bus as I did when I was eighteen, people would look at me and think 'there is a forty year-old man sitting on the floor of the bus shelter'. Even worse, they might know who I am and be thinking 'there is that man who used to teach my son how to play guitar, sitting on the floor of the bus shelter when there is a perfectly good seat'.

It just isn't worth the bother, which is a shame, as I feel constrained by this kind of thing.

In many ways however I am glad to grow older, and am quite happy to be viewed as a more mature member of society. But because I am a pop writer and performer I face a dilemma: should I attempt to arrest my development and present a youthful image, or should I give in to the ageing process and even celebrate it in song?

The question is rhetorical, as I have long since made my decision.

I do not buy into the Peter Pan myth of pop. I have no intention of pretending to be eternally youthful like so many of the botoxed-up-to-the-eyeballs time deniers out there in showbiz land. You can see with painful acuity that they are fighting a losing battle - trying desperately to cling on to their lost youth, hanging on grimly by a thread. It just doesn't wash folks.

For one thing, you begin to adopt that permanently surprised expression. You know the one, the routinely amazed look worn by an ageing gerbil when informed by a record company executive that a top name producer has been hired in a last ditch attempt to rescue their floundering career.

Obviously gerbils don't have pop careers at any age, hence the amazed expression.

But what I am trying to say is this: in our internet age, in this New Age of Pop, I firmly believe that the artist should stop covering up and should begin to act their age. There is no shame in growing older - it can bring a broadening of perspective and a deepening of experience to be welcomed, celebrated even. Certainly not shunned.

I don't want to think that I am obliged to start making music of a genre typically associated with the older performer however. Much as I like the sound of voices oak-aged in barrels murmuring tastefully to acoustic guitars, pianos and understated strings, if I wish to carry on churning out perky synth-pop tunes and post-punk clangour well into my eighties I shall do so, assuming I am lucky enough to live that long.

What I shall not be doing is having my skin stretched as tight as Roger Taylor's snare drum and squeezing into the PVC trousers in which I danced to 'Planet Earth' down the school disco in 1981.

I admit that pop music has never been overly preoccupied with dignity but I still believe that - in this new century - a person can continue to make pop music well into their middle age and grow old gracefully at the same time.

Monday, 16 June 2008


The layout I have chosen for this blog is called 'Snapshot'. I selected this one because in addition to being the name of a blog layout, it is the title of a song I wrote in 1991. This composition has lately assumed greater significance with the reformation of my band Moscow Circus.

Moscow Circus were a post-punk and sixties influenced group who formed in 1988 and split in 1991. The line-up consisted originally of three good friends: Tom Parratt, Peter Temperton and myself. Initially called Critical Hippo, we had been together just three weeks when we played our first gig at The Garage in Nottingham in January 1988 supporting The Legendary Dolphins.

In May 1988 we left our familial homes in South Derbyshire and moved into a house in Dunkirk, Nottingham in order to begin the process of becoming international rock stars. Actually, this isn't strictly true. We moved into a house in Dunkirk, Nottingham and began the process of eating, drinking and smoking lots of stuff that was quite bad for us, whilst simultaneously practising at ear-splitting volumes and alienating our elderly neighbours and the rest of the community.

Changing our name to Moscow Circus and then Stigmata, we did a few gigs and went out drinking and watching bands in Nottingham, but mainly stayed at home listening to the disorientating psychedelic sounds of The 13th Floor Elevators and taking back our empties to the shop (five pence a bottle on barley wine)

When we were banned from rehearsing at home we discovered that we could rehearse at the nearby Community Centre for just five pounds a week. We never did because when the day came around we would invariably have no money. This is how dedicated we were to achieving success in the cut and thrust world of rock 'n' roll. We had attitude by the truckload but barely a thimbleful of the work ethic.

After Dunkirk we split for a while. Some of us went fruit picking and I began a doomed attempt to train as a care worker and then as a teacher. None of these hats fit somehow but I didn't know what else to do and so I applied for a teaching training degree at North Riding College in Scarborough.

On the cusp of my foray into further education to become an educator I decided that I didn't want to go to Teacher Training College. I wanted to play rock 'n' roll music again. We were all living back on the rural fringes of South Derbyshire and meeting up regularly. So Pete, Tom and I began to play together once more, and this time we were serious. Yes, we actually rehearsed on a weekly basis.

Renaming ourselves Bloodsugar, we recruited Martin Haddelsey on keyboards and backing vocals and began to gig in the East Midlands for a second time. We also recorded some songs using Pete's four-track tape recorder. Once a week we carefully recorded the drum parts at our rehearsal place in Derby and then laid down the guitars, keyboards and vocals at Tom's house in Long Eaton.

By mid-1991 we had run out of steam. Tom was playing in a folk-rock band called Shamus O'Blivion And The Megadeath Morrismen. Pete was training to be a teacher. I was auditioning for bands in London. We gave it up for a second time but remained good friends.

In November 2007 I was sitting with my girlfriend in the same pub where we had reformed the band in August 1990. 'Wouldn't it be fun', I said to her, 'if we reformed the band for mine and Pete's fortieth birthday?'. Yes, she agreed that it would indeed be fun. 'But Pete probably won't do it' I said, 'he hasn't played the bass for nearly twenty years. He doesn't even own a bass in fact. What will I say to him?'

I had just taught Sam the word 'chops' as in the musician slang 'to get one's chops together' (i.e. to learn to play well). 'Tell him he's got the chops man' she said.

So I did.

Moscow Circus reformed in late 2007. In January 2008 we received our first ever US college radio play on a station called Radio KSCU, Santa Clara, California. DJ Jeff Shelton had heard the song 'Princess Rainbow' online and decided he would like to play it on his show The 80s Underground.

I was very pleased as we did not receive much acclaim at the time (and didn't try very hard either!) and this seemed like vindication. To hear a song I wrote in 1989 played alongside classics by XTC, The Teardrop Explodes, Wire, The Chameleons, The Jam, The Only Ones and Magazine and not suffering by comparison was a great feeling.

And so here we are. A snapshot for you.

The first Moscow Circus gig since 1991 will take place at The Loft in Nottingham on Sun July 20th.