Being a reliable dep bassist/guitarist I regularly play with a lot of different people in a lot of different bands. I have done for longer than I care to admit, yet it still amazes me how often I come across people who cannot play nicely with others. I don’t mean the usual muso problems (that I spent most of my first novel, Weekend Rockstars, making jokes about) like ego clashes, everybody trying to be louder than everyone else, or stealing the drummer’s girlfriend. I’m talking about the basics, like starting at the same time, being in the same key and playing at the same speed.
My first band – which isn’t the one I tell people was my first band – was a Christian rock group formed at a church youth club in 1989. It was made up of the precocious little prick that was twelve year old me, two girls who could just about hold a tune, a friend who could play drums, another friend who claimed to be able to play keyboards but in truth could only play ‘Silent Night’ on his nan’s accordion, and another friend who had no discernible musical talent: we gave him a bass – obviously.
Our first few rehearsals consisted of my trying to teach them an epic 15 minute prog interpretation of the book of Genesis I had written called ‘In The Beginning’ – of which there are thankfully no surviving records – while hammering the importance of the guitar solos into them by playing a borrowed guitar as loud as possible through a ghetto blaster. The girls had no idea where to come in and it was becoming obvious ‘Silent Night’ didn’t really fit.
Luckily for me, the church youth club leader was a grizzled old muso called Eddie (who was approximately 3 years younger than I am now). He had played all over Wales with Dave Edmunds (who none of us had ever heard of) and Welsh Fargo (which was a pun we didn’t get). It was he who loaned me the guitar I was playing – I have not given it back as it’s still my go to number one guitar. Without him, my life would have been markedly different and I miss him every day the same way I missed his funeral in the deep snows of a freezing December a decade ago.
But it made us better, something clicked, and even the non-musicians could learn it quickly. We were playing a whole song, start to finish, without any fuck-ups. I learned that my ambition far outstripped their talent (a thing I have had to live with every day of my musical career, I’m still enough of a prick to never doubt my own ability) and to lower my expectations. Sometimes simple is better: fewer chords, less fret-wanking and slow the fuck down.
Since then I have come across a million different people who never had an Eddie, never learned how to work with others. From those who blindly follow the song note for note, beat by beat, with no space for improvisation – not even the kind necessitated by having to wait for a forgetful singer to come back in or an equipment malfunction – to those unable to keep the same time as the rest of the band (it’s surprising how many of those are drummers). Along with the no-compromise ‘just play the fecking note Dougal!’ dictators and ‘ah that’ll do’ bumblers who are happy to carry on playing minor chords that should be majors.
(Again, I can’t stress enough that if you are chuckling in recognition you will definitely enjoy my book – Weekend Rockstars.)
All these little problems can be ironed out with a willingness to listen to and learn from each other. Musicians are fragile of ego, and naturally given to melodrama, so in practice any slight criticism tends to lead to a flounce and the end of the band. But it wouldn’t if everybody had the memory of a middle-aged welshman with a fondness for lying about his achievements knocking them down to size.
Less than a year later, I had philosophised myself out of my Christian upbringing and – in a splendid accidental metaphor – left that church youth group to play in a punk band called Dead Jesus. I suppose I should probably say ‘Thank You Jesus’ for lowering my proggy expectations to shouty three-chord wonders with no guitar solos, but it was Eddie that fixed it, even if Jesus told him to.