Friday, 4 December 2015

World of Sport

We were in a pub having a drink, very probably watching some band when three young men approached our table - two white guys and a skinny Asian with a leather jacket and long hair. They wanted a quick word with my drinking companion, Popeye the Sailor Man. They were forming a band and wanted to know whether he would sing for them. I kept a diary going for most of 1985 and yet can find no reference to this encounter, although I've a hunch it may have been Saturday the 23rd of March, upon which I noted:

Today I went to Rochester flea market with Popeye the Sailor Man and Olive Oyl. I found out that I am not so overdrawn at the bank as I thought, and by quite a margin in fact. That cheered me up. We visited all sorts of shops and places. I like Olive Oyl. She is a nice person, childlike without being childish. I also met Rosa who was also nice. She is a professional fashion designer who has been in i-D magazine and Look Now! I watched Doctor Who, which was ace, and went to the Good Intent to see the Product who were excellent. Some flat-top beer wallies were slam dancing at the front, although surprisingly there was no violence. Popeye the Sailor Man did an hilarious impersonation of the really fat one. Olive Oyl also came to the pub a bit later. I love Chatham. It is such an interesting and diverse place with nice people and no arty types.

Obviously this wasn't really Popeye the Sailor Man. The individual concerned was hypothetically my best friend from our course at Maidstone College of Art. He lived in Chatham, and I laughed at all of his jokes and regarded him as a musical genius. We had little contact with each other once our course came to an end in 1987, but just enough to have subsequently fallen out for stupid reasons, specifically either because I posted unkind remarks about his favourite television programme on facebook, or because I think I'm cool but I'm really not, or because I've failed to remain exactly the same as I was thirty years ago. People change and these things happen, and these days he may as well be Popeye the Sailor Man so far as I'm concerned.

To get back to the point, I was there when Andy, Rajun, and Alun asked Popeye the Sailor Man to sing for their band. The band was called Apricot Brigade and was, I suppose, something in the general direction of contemporary psychedelia - nothing so obvious as a revival but approximately post-punk with occasional nods to the Doors or the less ponderous regions of Pink Floyd's oeuvre. By way of contrast, Popeye the Sailor Man was himself of a more traditionally gothic sensibility, tending towards tortured songs of self-loathing, regret, and that feeling you get when you've drunk the last of the rum with two days to go before you hit port. Oddly, the four of them all seemed to match each other quite well, and Apricot Brigade became regulars on the Medway live circuit, even attracting something of a following.

Then at some point which I've failed to record in my diary, presumably during either the spring or early summer of 1986 - I was asked to join the band. I was already in a band - Total Big, with my friends Carl and Chris - but whilst it was a lot of fun, Total Big hadn't quite been the sort of band of which I had ever envisioned myself as a member. It was loose and conspicuously lacking in Joy Division style bass lines, and I'd always aspired to something a little more self-important and po-faced. I didn't really see why I shouldn't be in more than one band at the same time - although I later learned this to have been the cause of some frowning for Carl and Chris; and besides, Popeye the Sailor Man and myself had played together with some frequency in the course of our respective solitary musical dabblings at college, and so it didn't seem like my joining his group would be such a wild leap.

Alun Jones - Apricot Brigade's drummer - had gone into the studio with the Dentists - a more conspicuously popular Medway band - and contributed to the recording of their Down and Out in Paris and Chatham EP around Easter 1986. This had inspired some debate over Alun's loyalties particularly as the Dentists had recently lost their previous drummer, Ian Greensmith. It was probably also significant that Alun and Popeye the Sailor Man didn't appear to get along particularly well, which with hindsight I would attribute to Alun having been a fairly good judge of character, possibly excepting his friendship with Bluto. Amongst the solo recordings made by Popeye the Sailor Man in the sound studio at Maidstone College of Art is a track called The World of Alun, apparently named in a general spirit of sneering at that which he considered saaaaaad in some respect, the world of Alun presumably being a modest realm characterised by jumpers your mum knitted for you, quite unlike Popeye the Sailor Man's important cosmopolitan multiverse of existential contemplation and tortured poetry. I chose not to notice it at the time, but Popeye the Sailor Man seemed stricken by a pathological need to define himself by means of his enemies, possibly adapting to the fact that he made enemies fairly easily. This was effected mainly through drinking to excess in combination with shagging whoever seemed available, activities which tended to generate self-loathing on his part and open hostility in others.

Popeye the Sailor Man inevitably regarded Alun's jumping ship as a betrayal on the scale of that which it might have been had their initial encounter been characterised by some sort of oath drawn in blood; but on the other hand it also meant that Alun graduated to a better band, one which released records, and that I was presented with a new opportunity for scowling meaningfully before a paying audience in the hope of some of them consenting to sexual intercourse with me.

Of course the most obvious objection to my replacing Alun as drummer was that I had no drum kit and no experience of playing one. I expect this may have initially made me something of a tough sale so far as Rajun and Andy were concerned given that they had no reason to view me as anything other than the scruffy bloke who always turned up at the pub with Popeye the Sailor Man and laughed at all his jokes. I was to operate a drum machine, play keyboard, and help take the band in a new direction. I had the feeling this new direction was driven mainly by Popeye the Sailor Man, but I could be wrong.

Uncle Fester - as Andy insisted we would now be called - had its first rehearsal at his dad's house in Chatham on Saturday the 14th of June, 1986. We worked our way through five or six Apricot Brigade songs, shifting them around a little so as to accommodate my presence. Rajun provided me with a Roland TR606 drum machine and Roland RS09 polyphonic keyboard, in addition to which I played manual electronic percussion on an MPC Industries Kit and Clap. I also had a small four channel mixer and a couple of Roland pedals to beef up the otherwise unimpressive rhythms I was either playing or programming. Andy provided an ironing board upon which I could set up all of this equipment; and if I wasn't playing two fingered organ melodies or tapping the pads, I was out front drumming away on whatever bits of metal were to hand. This was because it was 1986, and we weren't going to be left out of the loop in terms of what Nigel Ayers describes as fashionable metal percussion in the sleeve notes of Nocturnal Emissions' Drowning in a Sea of Bliss album.

So the line-up of World of Sport - as was Andy's next suggestion for a name, and the one we really should have stuck with - was Popeye the Sailor Man on rhythm guitar and vocals, Andy playing bass, Rajun playing lead, and myself doing something else depending on the song. I was in essence a musician without portfolio - possibly excepting the musician element - and this was probably what doomed me to failure, namely that I wasn't really required to do any one specific thing, and it was sometimes hard to tell quite what was expected of me; and given that I wasn't quite sure what I was doing, I tended to take a back seat.

Nevertheless, it was initially fun, not least being in a band which sounded more like the sort of thing I would listen to at home, and less like the sort of thing which traditionally would have had me as a member. To point out that the songs were self-involved and lacking in humour is at least as much of a dead end as suggesting that the Barron Knights lacked gravitas; and Rajun was a great guitarist, and Popeye the Sailor Man had a great voice. It sounded at least as dark and serious as the Sisters of Mercy, without necessarily resembling them; and it was fun in a social sense as well.

I would cycle the eight or so miles to Chatham every Friday evening, stay the night at Andy's place, and then we'd have a rehearsal on the Saturday depending on the state of the hangover incurred by Popeye the Sailor Man. Andy's dad never seemed to be around, and I don't even recall if I actually ever met the man. I believe Andy's mother had left some years before, so it was usually just the two of us. It was odd and a little awkward - although not to the point of being unpleasant - because I didn't really know Andy well enough to be staying at his house with such regularity but he was the only one with a spare bed. His house was spotless, almost a show home, large and suburban middle class of the kind associated with sitcoms in which Terry Scott shits himself because his Rabelasian boss is coming over for tea on the evening of June Whitfield having scheduled a visit from their unusually prudish vicar. I felt vaguely guilty simply walking through the front door, as though I might abruptly find myself sans trousers and about to deposit a turd dead centre of the pristine living room carpet before I knew what was happening. Additionally, while Andy was generally both amiable and very, very funny, he tended towards the sort of quiet reserve which leaves you wondering what he's thinking, even when he may not be thinking anything, which did nothing to allay the fear that I might be imposing upon his hospitality.

On one occasion I stayed at Rajun's house for some reason, although it was less practical, Rajun's house also being occupied by his parents and his brother, Prez. I'd met Prez a few times and got on well with him, and vaguely knew their parents from the Blue Lagoon, the combined burger bar and music venue they ran in the high street. I didn't know them so well as to strike a casual attitude when crossing the landing in the middle of the night in need of a pee only to encounter Rajun's dad stood glowering in the dark in just his pants.

'Hello, Mr. Amin,' I squeaked pitifully. 'Just needing the er...'

Mr. Amin glowered and said nothing.

Maybe he was sleepwalking.

Anyway, ambiguous silences and nudist fathers notwithstanding,  I got to know Andy and Rajun reasonably well and grew to enjoy their company. Peculiarly I even got to know Alun whom I had replaced, and found him considerably more personable than Popeye the Sailor Man, which was strange and unexpected. Despite Popeye the Sailor Man being the one member of the band whom I'd known for longer than five minutes, I never stayed at his place, if he even had a place at the time. Let's just assume that Olive Oyl probably didn't want strangers trudging through the house waking Swee'Pea.

At some point or other, we settled on Envy as the new name. Inspired by one of Andy's more surreal monologues, I'd come up with a logo for World of Sport - a candle burning gothically atop a football, but Envy sounded a bit like Greed, which was an album by the Swans, so that was it. As well as a name, we had our first gig - Friday the 8th of August, 1986 at Pickwicks in Rochester High Street. We were support to a band called Robert Underwater, and according to my notebook of the time our set comprised Pale Orchid, Cut So Deep, an untitled instrumental, Cat & Mouse, We Will Fall during which Andy had some trouble with his bass, Twenty-One Years, I Yam What I Yam*, No Sound, Goodnight, and Howling Moon. I don't remember anything about it because it was thirty years ago and I was almost certainly drunk, although I have a feeling Robert Underwater all wore sunglasses despite it being night time.

Our next date was Friday the 29th of August, 1986 at Churchills in Chatham as support to the Strookas and Swinging Time. Our set comprised the still untitled instrumental, No Sound, Carmilla, Goodnight, We Will Fall, Twenty-One Years, I'm Strong to the Finish 'Cause I Eats Me Spinach*, Cut So Deep, Pale Orchid, and Cat & Mouse. I have dim memories of this performance being better than the previous gig, but that I felt vaguely ridiculous in my role, essentially an imposter. The other three were producing music. I was pressing buttons or hunkering down on the floor to hit an empty petrol can with a tack hammer; and I wasn't the only one having doubts. In my sketchbook, a note dated to Saturday the 30th of August, 1986 reports:

Andy has just said he's left the band. He may have changed his mind by the morning, although I doubt that he will. I'm sad, and I hope that he does change his mind, but I can fully understand his decision. It's all gone bad - very bad. We argue constantly, and so far as I'm concerned a drum machine should provide fast bone crushing rhythms that kicks the audience in the teeth rather than something which could quite easily be replaced by a metronome. Also I'm sick and tired of having to apologise to Popeye the Sailor Man for pissing him off by finding myself sick and tired of his shit.

Andy changed his mind, and we played another gig at Churchills in Chatham as support to the Herbs and the Martini Slutz on Wednesday the 3rd of September, 1986, possibly not representing a significant improvement because in my sketchbook on the following Tuesday I note:

I am in a band of which I don't really know if I want to be a member. It isn't fun any more, and that should surely be the most important part of it. It isn't even as though I add anything to the equation.

Murmurs about the worth of my contribution accordingly began to emerge, mostly voiced by Popeye the Sailor Man, and unfortunately lacking any concrete suggestion of what was actually expected of me beyond some nebulous definition of loyalty dependent upon my understanding of how lucky I was to be in the group, and how many strings he had pulled to bring this about. I'd seen him pull this same sort of passive-aggressive shit before, and was at last beginning to recognise it for what it was - just Popeye the Sailor Man playing divide and rule.

So I contributed a song, not a very good song, but a song nonetheless. It was called Said I Was A Reptile and it sounded like Portion Control impersonating the Cure. We rehearsed it once at the Blue Lagoon, in the basement which also served as bar and music venue. It felt like a waste of everyone's time.

The next diary-equivalent note to appear in my sketchbook, and the last to refer to the group, dates to Wednesday the 17th of September, 1986 and reads thus:

Today was my twenty-first birthday. Andy gave me a small baseball bat so I can hit things during gigs. Envy played at Churchills in Chatham with the Sceptres. Our set comprised the instrumental, No Sound, We Will Fall, Twenty-One Years, Cut So Deep, Pale Orchid, Carmilla, Sailor's Hornpipe*, Goodnight, and Cat & Mouse.

I'd found some more old oil cans on a bit of waste ground, the kind which would have held three or four gallons, and I pounded these with the baseball bat during whichever song it was we had decided would benefit from inept metal bashing. It was probably a novelty in terms of Churchills, but doubtless looked absurd to anyone who'd ever been to see Test Department. Another couple of rehearsals slid past, possibly even a gig I failed to note in my sketchbook, and the moment inevitably came.

We need to have a talk.

It had been a decent Saturday afternoon on Rochester High Street, possibly following some sort of Dickens related public festival - more or less a weekly occurence in that part of the Medway towns - and I was as usual lightly but pleasantly drunk. We all went to sit upon the grass opposite what is now the Tara Baker Hair Studio, and may have been the Tara Baker Hair Studio even then for all I can remember. I had assumed we were just going to talk about stuff, but immediately realised it was a sacking.

'It's not working,' said Popeye the Sailor Man, making it clear that this wasn't something to be negotiated.

'But but but,' I countered ineffectively.

Andy stepped in with unexpected anger, pointing out just how many weeks I'd had in which to scour local rubbish dumps for the sort of scrap by which I would transform Envy into a sort of Kentish Einsturzende Neubauten, and how I hadn't actually done this. In fact it was difficult to say what I actually had brought to the group, and obviously he made a good point.

I had no defence, and although I'd become accustomed to the passive-aggressive observations of Popeye the Sailor Man, these harsh words from Andy came as a complete surprise and a shock. I don't think I'd even seen him angry before that moment. Weirdly, I started crying, which probably didn't help my case. I felt ashamed because I'd really wanted it to work, but I knew it had been a waste of time all along. Possibly the others had also known this, but it had still seemed like it was worth a try.

They carried on without me, acquiring a proper drummer, and continuing for as long as any of the respective members could stand to be in the same room as Popeye the Sailor Man, each eventually and inevitably making it onto his enemies list for one reason or another. I have seen both Rajun and Andy since, and it was great to see them again, and to be able to have a decent conversation without giving a shit about that stupid band we'd been in. I resumed full-time pissing about in Total Big, appreciating it all the more having briefly gone through the misery of being in a serious band performing songs about what is to be seen as one gazes stony faced into the blackness of the human soul vowing that never again shall those shallow fools laugh at thine tortured musings as scribbled in diseased hand upon the cursed parchment of eternity...

You live and learn.

*: Not really.

1 comment:

  1. I Love your writing. It is always so intelligently delivered and so very engaging. Honest too