Friday, 10 July 2015

Songs About Sandwiches

I knew Carl well enough to laugh at his jokes, and for him to occasionally laugh at mine, but we weren't close. I didn't know Chris at all. He was just Carl's friend from outside the art college, out there in the real world. They knew each other from school, and Chris would turn up at college parties, his yachting-casual attire presenting an almost surreal contrast with the Oxfam gothic favoured by almost everyone else, this being 1985. He would grin like the silent Marx brother and point at the ceiling and then at the centre of the dance floor - college refectory by day - making moves straight out of Saturday Night Fever regardless of what was playing. Der Mussolini by DAF or Heaven 17, it was all the same to Chris, so it seemed. Whatever you might have said of the man, he knew how to have fun.

They were both in a band called To The Max, Chris playing a tiny synthesiser and Carl singing, with Adam and Martin on drums and guitar respectively - or at least that's how I remember it. To The Max played at college parties. They reminded me a little of the Stooges, maybe with some Clash thrown in. They scored well on energy, but were often a bit of a racket, and now it seemed that they had broken up and this was why Carl and Chris were at my place - Hollytree House, the cottage in the village of Otham in which I rented a room for about a tenner a week.

I still didn't really understand.

'You play guitar,' Carl suggested. 'I've seen you!'

Despite playing guitar, I hadn't really considered the option of being in a band. Most of the music I produced at the time came from me playing all of the instruments, or at least hitting all of the objects from which I derived sound. I had seen To The Max play live and not once considered what it would be like to be involved with that sort of thing. Carl and Chris on the other hand very much enjoyed being in a band and wished to continue, and so they had thought of me. They knew I had a guitar, but had never heard me play. Carl reasoned that even if I was only able to make a noise with one string occasionally held down to produce a second note, thus forming a tune, it might still be worth doing. After all, the Cramps did well enough with a fairly basic sound.

My musical abilities actually went a little further than tunes plucked out on one string, if admittedly not much further; but I could manage just enough of a bar chord to chug out something roughly equidistant between the New York Dolls and the Ramones, so on Saturday the 9th of November, 1985 we formally agreed that we were a band. We called ourselves Total Big, a dubiously translated phrase apparently seen on the packaging of a toy robot of Japanese manufacture promising the consumer that, amongst the toy robot's numerous admirable qualities, he is total big.

On Sunday the 17th of November, 1985 we set up what instruments we could muster in the garage of Chris's dad's house in Sittingbourne and made a racket for the best part of the afternoon. It was cold, and I think I was a little bewildered by Chris's dad's extensive collection of Lledo die-cast toy cars ranging along the shelves of the garage, all still in their boxes; and it was noisy, but it was fun. Afterwards we sat listening to the tape of what was essentially just improvisation, picking out two or three segments which sounded good enough to have been deliberate. These became Rock Sandwich and I Write the Songs, later changed to He Writes the Songs when Carl went through our growing body of work changing personal pronouns so as to reduce the quota of seemingly egotistical first person narratives. He wrote the songs, but these weren't the songs that made the whole world sing, it should probably be pointed out, more in the line of free-form mating calls occasionally appropriating whatever lyric was at hand and seemed to fit the occasion.

Never mind the whole world, we barely made a half-empty college canteen sing on Wednesday the 27th of November, our first live performance offered as part of an all-night occupation of the building mounted in protest against cuts to education funding. Jude Hibbert back-combed my hair for the occasion, and we played Rock Sandwich, He Writes the Songs, and Ouch! which wasn't exactly a new number so much as thirty seconds of the maximum volume of noise we could muster through banging, screaming, and shredding an open chord all at the same time, the sort of thing for which Skullflower accrued much droning acclaim a few years later.

A couple of people submitted bewildered applause, which mainly served to emphasise how many had either failed to applaud or who had even left the room, but Carl, Chris, and myself had enjoyed it, and that was the main thing. It had worked, more or less. My guitar sounded good and crunchy, distorted through Carl's small but formidable Roland Cube amplifier. Despite the songs comprising just rudimentary riffs blasted out over and over, I'd still managed to forget how to play some of it, but had apparently appeared unflustered by my own rock and roll incompetence. Chris had played the drums as ever like he was nailing down the floorboards, as Martin de Sey later described it; and Carl was solidly entertaining, as always.

Carl represented a not-particularly-secret weapon in our line up in so much that even if we sounded terrible, people tended not to notice because they would usually be watching Carl and wondering what the hell he was going to do next. It wasn't really just that he jumped about a bit so much as that he performed every act possible on stage given whatever props were available, and barring those acts which were either illegal or at least required a permit. Regrettably my musicianship was of such rudimentary standard as to require me to keep my own fingers under constant observation whilst playing, so I experienced most of Carl's acrobatics as anecdotes related after the event by members of the audience. On one occasion I briefly looked up to see him stood on two chairs, one per foot, holding the backs of each chair with his hands and walking around the room as though on stilts. On another occasion, we played in a pub in Worthing as support to Soul, the group for which Charlie Adlard was then drummer. I stole upwards glances on four separate occasions during the gig, achieving four brief impressions of the event at roughly ten minute intervals - Carl singing to a full room whilst upside down on the pool table, then singing to fewer people whilst hanging from the back of the door like an Orang-outang, then a microphone lead trailing up behind the drawn curtain of a small window into which Carl had presumably squeezed himself, and finally Carl singing on all fours with his head inside the bass drum. The room was empty by this point, excepting bar staff and members of the band we were supporting.

'Wow! We cleared the room,' I observed as the last song died away in our ears.

'Fuck 'em!' said Karl with a K, the singer in Charlie's group. 'That was amazing!'

I wasn't always convinced of this. I liked playing the stuff we did, but I was never sure I would have listened to it had I not actually been responsible for its creation. I enjoyed the freedom of playing without obligation to acknowledge whatever some bass player or second guitarist might be doing, but on some level it also felt kind of like cheating, or maybe too easy. I yearned to be in some group of portentous vessels of glacial doom, the sort of thing eschewing any on-stage smiling and definitely no bum jokes, and which would result in strangers congratulating me on my profound solemnity and a long line of knockery girls patiently waiting for access to the contents of my trousers. I muttered words to this effect on a few occasions, and Carl would quite rightly point out that I was the one with the guitar, and it wasn't like anyone was telling me what to play, which was true.

We continued to rehearse, or at least to get together and make stuff up, and to go over those arbitrary combinations of riffs which had begun to sound like songs; or sometimes we'd just piss off to the seaside in Chris's car and eat ice creams instead. Fun was the point, and it remained so, and by Thursday the 6th of March, 1986 we played a second gig, once again at the art college, but this time with an expanded half-hour set including Are You My Mother?, He Believes, Armchair Maniac, the inevitable cover of Louie Louie and probably some others. The event carried a glam rock theme and my diary of the time notes:

People danced! People even cheered! We were followed by the Hubcap Diamond Star Halo Band who mimed to cover versions. We were not as popular but we were at least musically and ideologically superior.

Our third performance was on Saturday the 12th of April, 1986 at a student house in Woodville Road, Maidstone. I have a feeling I may have worn a lady's dress for the occasion, a fetching floor-length Prussian blue number picked up in a charity shop because that's rock 'n' roll. We played at a couple of parties after this, it being easy to do because everything could be fitted into the boot of Chris's car, and we took about five minutes to set up and sound check. Chris's kit was pretty minimal, and then there was just the guitar, an amplifier, and a microphone. We managed to play at a party in Bearsted from the staircase, Chris banging away on the upper landing, myself halfway down much like Kermit's nephew, and Carl doing his thing at the foot of the stairs. I'm fairly sure we also played at a few parties uninvited just by turning up and getting on with it, much to the bewilderment of whoever was living there. Carl was keen on the idea that we might inspire a mixture of awe, surprise and horror, sort of like finding your mum in a readers' wives magazine, he explained.

Even without a pensive bass player, or brooding synth effects, or the sort of mournful dirges guaranteed to get the chicks beating a path to my bedroom door, it was fun to be part of Total Big, and I grew to enjoy it more and more - as I noted in my diary apparently with some surprise on a few occasions. This was doubtless because the three of us enjoyed hanging out together anyway, regardless of all being in the same band. If we weren't rehearsing, or at least making a noise, we would watch Black Adder or old monster movies at Chris's dad's house, or make stupid films or videos to accompany our songs, mostly sped up affairs in which we all jumped up and down pulling faces as soon as the camera was rolling. The Tube on Channel 4 ran a competition, asking aspiring rock bands to send in their own videos, and so we availed ourselves of the thousands of pounds of state of the art video effects and equipment to which I had access as part of my degree course and made a video for the song Armchair Maniac - which if technically advanced, nevertheless still managed to communicate that quality of having been made by chimpanzees. We didn't win, but never mind.

On Tuesday the 9th of December, 1986 my diary records:

Total Big played at the all night work-in event staged in protest against proposed cuts to arts education funding at Maidstone College of Art. Carl, Chris and myself were joined by Mark Smith on saxophone and our set comprised He Believes, Are You My Mother (Or Just A Hole In The Ground?), Rock Sandwich, Louie Sister Joe, You're Okay, Keep Your Dreams A'Burning, Do The Frug, and All Day And All Of The Night.

Mark Smith was a first year time-based media student and saxophone player who had pretty much told us he was joining the band, having seen us play at some party or other. His enthusiastic honking matched our music well, but his forceful introduction came in peculiar contrast to a stage performance during which he continued to drift ever further from his microphone until he was stood hooting and honking away more or less inaudibly on the other side of the refectory, at a greater distance from the rest of the band than most of the audience.

Soon after this, Chris found a job, but it was in Dover on the south coast and so he bought a house down there and moved. It was more than forty miles away, which no longer strikes me as a significant distance, but was at the time enough to preclude the possibility of regular weekend rehearsals.

Carl and I resolved to continue in some form, although it took us a while to work out quite what that was going to be. We had a rehearsal with a first year time based media student succinctly named Mac on drums. It sounded great, so Carl and I thought. Mac was a serious little guy with a permanent five o'clock shadow and a massive drum kit. He was technically very accomplished and probably would have been more at home in some stadium rock outfit. Whether Mac felt the same was unclear beyond that he didn't feel at home in Total Big, and the next few rehearsals were open invitations extended to whoever the hell felt like showing up.

I had a couple of guitars, and three keyboards of varying musicality including both Casio VL Tone and Casio SK1, an early cheap polyphonic sampler. The next few rehearsals or jam sessions or whatever you could call them were chaotic, just groups of people crammed into my bedroom making a noise, all playing something different, songs defined only by the gaps during which no-one was playing. At one point we vaguely decided we would be called the Flaps, possibly due to one number having been distinguished by someone speaking the word flaps into my sampler, then playing it back to apparently hilarious effect because it was, you know, rude and stuff. Then Gareth Roberts, who had turned up for most of these exercises in free jazz, suggested Spinning Pygmies as a name, which at least seemed to relate to the noise we were making in some obscure way, but it was clear that it wasn't really going anywhere.

'We've got two whole songs now,' Gareth notes happily on one of the recordings.

'Yes,' I reply, 'but they're both the same one.'

The tapes sound like what happens when you give a room full of children musical instruments and shout go!, and yet we were actually trying to squeeze out something resembling songs, or at least not specifically resembling industrial noise. The chaos was such that I can no longer even recall who turned up to those sessions aside from Carl, myself, Gareth, and Paul Fallon, although I think the record was seven people on one particularly noisy weekend.

Following the December performance with Mark Smith, I became too lazy to maintain a regular diary, and the next pertinent entry dates from Friday the 19th of June, 1987 reading:

The Dovers play at a party at 5, Terrace Road, Maidstone. Also showing are film and video works by Peter Jones, Gareth Roberts, and Mark Orphan.

We had settled on the Dovers in reference to that being where our former drummer now lived. It seemed a straightforward, direct sort of name, mercifully lacking the wheezing novelty of Spinning Pygmies and the rest. Carl had picked up a small hand held Boss DR220E drum machine from somewhere, and so we became a duo.

In the mean time I still had a burning need to appear on stage in a long coat with my cheeks sucked-in whilst top-heavy female audience members screamed and threw their underwear at me. Somehow the Dovers still wasn't getting me there, and the only interest I had drawn at our 5, Terrace Road performance was from an intense young man with piercing eyes who followed me around after the gig attempting to engage me in conversation about William Blake, and his advances were weird and not entirely welcome. I therefore said yes when asked to join Envy, a Medway group serving as vehicle for the important songs of Paul Mercer, a former fellow student who really knew how to work a frown. I stood at the back playing a Roland SH09 keyboard, pressing the start button on the drum machine, and occasionally hitting an old car door rescued from the side of the road with a baseball bat in an unconvincing but undoubtedly topical dalliance with metal percussion, which was all the rage at the time.

I suspect Carl may have been a little pissed off by this development, and eventually so were the members of Envy, even including myself - just as soon as we realised that the one part of the equation which didn't really work was me. Envy replaced me with a proper drummer, and Carl and I thankfully went back to being full-time Dovers, and full-time gigging Dovers now that I had moved to the Medway towns, having finished college, and found myself on the periphery of a fairly lively music scene. In my brief absence, or at least my brief period of reduced dependability, Carl had been mucking about with a neighbour, a guitarist called Alan Mason; and so as we once again cohered we became a trio comprising singer, two guitars, and a drum machine. We had a few rehearsals and played live a couple of times, but my memory of this period is patchy. I recall that Alan was somewhat more accomplished than myself, and seemed to be playing all sorts of weird chords of his own invention. Additionally he worked out what I was to play when we performed what were effectively his songs, which somewhat threw me as I was more accustomed and much happier to work out my own accompaniment, such as it was; but I guess we achieved some sort of chemistry, as we began to perform fairly regularly in Chatham, mostly at the Sunset Strip, a venue in the basement of a burger joint run by Mr. and Mrs. Amin, parents of Rajun who had been the guitarist in Envy. We supported Sexton Ming's Mind Readers, Johnny Gash, Infinity Corporation, Envy, the Uninvited Guests, Near-Death Experience, Rocking Richard & Whistling Vic Templar, and All Flags Burn. Alan brought a new lease of life to the group, and also a fez for each of us back from his excursion to Morocco, and we wore these on stage but only once in my case because I have a massive head and it kept falling off. Sadly, due to most of our gigs being in Chatham, and Alan being committed to working unorthodox hours in London, he was reduced to an occasional presence as we began to play live with more frequency. It sort of worked due to our being pretty much the opposite of a thirteen-piece orchestra in organisational terms, and on Wednesday the 27th of January, 1988 we played the Sunset Strip backed by Chris from Total Big on drums and Martin, formerly of To The Max playing a second guitar. Occasionally we would invite members of the audience to join in, so we had guest vocals from Glenn Wallis of Konstruktivists and Andy Fraser more recently of Unlucky Fried Kitten, to name but two.

Somehow we even began to acquire fans, or at least people who turned up to a succession of gigs and usually looked like they were enjoying it. Judith Mullarkey writing for her music column in the Chatham Standard also seemed to appreciate us, so that was something.

'Who's your favourite band?,' Carl would call out unto the back-combed crowd crammed into the sweaty basement of the Sunset Strip.

'The Dovers!' Sarah and Lynne screamed back in response as everyone else talked amongst themselves and wondered what time Johnny Gash were coming on. I'm pretty sure it was Lynne who won the Tiffany album when Carl offered it as a prize for whoever could applaud the loudest halfway through our set one evening. It was ludicrous, but at least somewhat less ludicrous then setting one's innermost anxieties to a tune and expecting to be congratulated for it; and the possibility now existed of there being people who enjoyed watching the Dovers more than I enjoyed being one, which actually felt quite good.

Then on Saturday the 16th of April 1988, Envy had to pull out of a performance at Chatham Town Hall, apparently part of some broader arts event. They asked us to take their place for some reason, and so suddenly we were on a proper stage and getting paid fifty quid to play our yappy novelty songs. Friends of Jeremy, Planet Mushroom, and ourselves were all to play as support to a group called the Claim. Planet Mushroom included various school kids we vaguely knew from hanging out at Gruts café on the High Street. They played vaguely psychedelic garagey music and were fucking great. They were almost worth seeing just for sheer enthusiasm alone. The Claim had records out and a following, and were thus a big deal. They seemed to regard their support bands as amateurs, which we were, and therefore saw no reason to allow us any time to sound check. They were a proper band, and they apparently found it insulting that their self-important constipated power pop should be prefixed by schoolkids and then a man singing about sandwiches. As we ended our set, I took the microphone and told everyone that Johnny Gash were playing at Churchills next door, adding 'I don't know about you lot, but that's where we're all going, so hopefully we'll see you there.'

We had been busy in 1988, but in 1989 I moved to Coventry and the Dovers went into suspended animation for a little while, re-emerging at the end of 1990 when I moved back down south, to London, and Carl acquired a four-track portastudio. We ceased playing live, mainly through having lost touch with anyone who might hook us up, but we started to record our songs, and even to compose new material of a less blunt disposition, the sort of thing which probably wouldn't have worked so well in a live setting. These songs revealed the more subtle aspects of Carl's voice, which actually proved surprisingly emotive and versatile once released from its obligation to foghorn out rock mating calls expressed as songs about sandwiches. Our work drew closer to the sort of thing I would listen to through choice even were I not somewhere on the recording, but for some reason it never really occurred to us to do anything with this music, or if it did and I've forgotten, we never got around to it.

However, Carl still longed to perform live, that being the area in which he excelled, and which he seemed to enjoy the most; and then bewilderingly, at some point in 1992, we were offered a gig, at some sort of community centre in Amersham. It was something to do with Carl's girlfriend - her sister was a member of one of the bands we were supporting or something along those lines. I don't recall much about these bands other than that they seemed like they might have one or two Dungeons & Dragons enthusiasts amongst their number, and they didn't seem to like us much presumably for the same reasons that the Claim hadn't liked us.

I was excited to be playing again, but after all the new music we had recorded - none of which would really lend itself to live performance by just two people - I didn't want to go back to what we had done before, having developed a fear of turning into a variant on Carter the Unlistenable Sex Machine, or anything which could be confused with the same. Carl and I worked out an entirely new set based on drum machine, vocals, and my keyboard through a distortion pedal. It sounded great in rehearsal, sort of like Suicide fronted by Bugs Bunny, and it might have sounded great live but for the fact that I drank so as to overcome my nerves, and inadvertently also overcame my memory of everything I was expected to play live on stage before a paying audience. I did the best I could, blasting out a vaguely tuneful drone whilst Carl did his thing, but it wasn't going down well, and the band we were supporting stood to one side of the stage, apparently hating us even more than the crowd and dooming us to invisibility within great sarcastic clouds of dry ice. There was so much of it that I could barely see my keyboard, although moving to one side I experienced just enough visibility to appreciate the sight of Carl retaliating, still singing whilst jumping up and down on the main band's carefully arranged and sound-checked array of effects pedals, reducing them to chip and transistor pizzas.

We finished, and before the dry ice could clear to reveal our destruction, we were in the van and driving hastily back to London. The sense of relief was incredible, and I was just happy that it was over. We didn't even talk about the gig, and I'm not sure we have ever discussed it to this day. It was horrible, and particularly because I'd had such high hopes of having at last escaped from my own chugging guitar riffs. I'd pushed the whole thing just a little bit closer to that band I'd always wanted to be in, and realised it had been a fucking terrible idea all along; and regrettably, that somehow became the end of the Dovers.

Carl and I recorded together again, and we remained bestest friends regardless, but musically it was over, and for no good or clear reason I can really remember. Carl sang in other groups, at least one with Alan Mason on guitar, and I saw them live on a couple of occasions. As with the Dovers, I'm not sure I would have played the records had there been any, but live they were fucking fantastic, and left me wondering if Total Big or the Dovers had ever been that good from the perspective of someone stood in the audience. I will never know, but I suppose the main thing was that it was fun, and as such it always did more or less what it had promised on the tin.

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