Wednesday 17 April 2024

Rock and Roll Stories #9 - A shout out for the bloke who drives the van!

There are a plethora of rock and roll stories in print. It seems that everyone who has ever played with, managed, done the sound for, slept with, taken pictures of, etc any rock star these days writes a book and becomes a minor celebrity. There are countless books written about the rise of rock and roll legends. In all of these books, for me at least, the most interesting bit of the book is the early years, before fame was achieved and there was someone to do everything for the star in question. In the post Britain's Got Talent Era, where stardom is instant and no one has to spend years 'paying their dues', many of the old truisms of rock and roll have ceased to be true. But go back to the prehistoric era of modern music, 1979, before Spotify, Youtube, Instagram and TikTok were the route to fame, and I was putting The False Dots together, the route to fame was to spend months/years putting a band together and rehearsing a set. You then did a demo and set out gigging. For most of us, that was as far as it got. For some of us, that is where we still are!

You did gigs to get noticed, to build a following and to try and get A&R scouts from record companies to pick you up. But mostly, you did gigs, as many as you could, because that is what bands do. And if you did gigs, that meant hauling around a huge amount of gear. You needed two things. A driver and a van. When the False Dots formed in February 1979, I was 16, too young to drive and I as still at school. By the time the band started gigging, I was 18 and skint. The rest of the band, Paul Hircombe was 15 and Craig and Mark were 17. It was a major problem. For the first few gigs, which were local, Mums and Dad's pitched in to drive us there with amps. This was most un-rock and roll. There is nothing less cool, especially when you've done a blinding gig and you are chatting to your fans, than when your mum turns up and say's "Come on, get your amp in the car, I've left Granny at home with her cocoa". I recall one gig at The Moonlight club, a proper Rock and Roll club in West Hampstead, where Craig's mum dropped him off with his amp. He insisted she parked down the road, so as to retain his rock guitarist cool vibes. He came in and we were setting up for a soundcheck. His mum suddenly walked in, and said "Craig, you forgot your sandwiches" and put them on the stage. The rest of us cracked up, but in truth, it could have been any of us. 

Fortunately, not long after, a mate of mine, Mr Dermot Patrick Fanning, passed his driving test. Another mate, Emil Bryden, who operated a firm called Budget Bus, that ran coach tours from London to New Delhi on the hippy trail, had a  VW camper van, which he'd lend to us to get us around, in exchange for a full tank of petrol when it was returned. All of a sudden, we were a proper band. I immediately passed a band rule that the band had to travel to the gig together in the van. There was no resistance to this idea, but given that the van was not very big, it meant that is would have 9 people and all the gear in, and was not exactly comfortable. The upside was that it was a proper laugh. There were many stories of Emil's van and the escapades. A big plus was that Derm was not a drinker. He just enjoyed the crack of being with the band.  He didn't ever ask for payment and would indulge all the silliness. I didn't realise just how lucky we were at the time to have him. He would knock off work early, pick us up, drive us to the gig, hang around for about nine hours, then drive us back. After a while, he twigged that once he'd dropped us off at the gig, he could go off and explore, returning for the set and the breakdown. Sometimes, he'd just turn up after and take us home. 

Rog with Derm at 'The Cottage'
It helped that he was living in our rehearsal studio, the former caretakers cottage at Bunns Lane Works. He acted as unofficial caretaker, sleeping in a semi derelict room upstairs. The front room was the nerve centre for the Dot's. After we returned, we'd put the kettle on, or have a beer, smoke illicit substances and generally party until the wee hours. Derm once told me that was the best bit. The front room, where we rehearsed, doubled up as a bedroom for anyone who got lucky, first come first serve (excuse the pun). Eventually, after about three years of driving the band around, Derm decided to learn Saxophone and ended up playing in the band for a year.

By about 1985, Derm was doing other things. We found a new driver, Mr Ernie Ferebee, on of Emil's drivers on Budget Bus. Ernie was ten years older than the rest of us and very worldly wise. He had worked in the music industry as security for legendary music manager Don Arden (Sharon Osborne's Dad).

Ernie with Captain Sensible at Mill Hill Music Complex
Ernie was 6'6 and built like a tank. One of his jobs for Mr Arden was dangling people who'd upset Mr Arden our of the window of his 5th floor office, by their ankles, until Mr Arden was happy that they'd seen the error of their ways. He'd also acted as security for Johnny Cash on a tour, learning to play the Jaws Harp on the way. When he got involved with us, he was working as a bus driver for London Transport, but was seeking a bit of fun. He took us around London and over to Belgium. He was a real asset as no one argued with Ernie. He fitted in easily and joined in the crack. Ernie worked with the band until we became dormant in 1990, then in 1994 became my partner in building Mill Hill Music Complex.

Another great example of a driver who grew in the industry was Barry Worman, Dad of Tim Polecats of the Polecats. When the band first started, Barry acted as their driver. He was a plumber by trade, so had a van. As the band became more successful, he initially became their manager, then their road manager as their fame spread. Barry had the big advantage of being completely trustworthy and committed. He fitted in rather well on the Rockabilly/Ted scene, having been of the era and a bit of a biker. He was also streetwise and savvy, so ensured the band were safe in various dodgy scenarios and scrapes. Barry had been quite a famous on the circuit figure in the motorbike scrambling scene of the 1950's and 60's and was full of stories, which he loved telling. The Polecats gave him a whole new set of stories to tell. 

Both Derm and Ernie did the driving for the fun and the love of it. Every real band of the era started with a Derm/Ernie character. Often they would, like Derm and Ernie, get the bug in their own way and end up either playing in bands or working in the industry. I've known quite a few such characters over the years, as they generally are sober, whilst everyone else has fun, they know all of the dirt and see all of the shenanigans. By nature, they are doing it for the love of the crack, not the money or fame and rarely spill the beans. 

I know for a fact that The False Dots would never really have got on without Derm and Ernie. They were key figures in the best times of our lives. In most of the biog's I mentioned at the start of this, they are a footnote. When the band becomes successful, often their contribution is forgotten, but in truth, without them, many bands would never have got out of the rehearsal room. They deserve a big shout out!
The False Dots are still going. We will be releasing a new single called We all love a party on Friday 19th April and are playing at The Dublin Castle with Skaface on Friday April 26th

The trailer for We All Love A Party


Tuesday 16 April 2024

Why everyone should sell their United Utilities shares today

Firstly, I'd like to apologise. I feel I should have been on top of this a long time ago. I saw this tweet yesterday from waterways campaigner Feargal Sharkey.

I saw this tweet and hung my head in shame. Why? Well you see, back in the days when I had spare cash, I set up a little share portfolio. I used to listen to podcasts by a chap called David Kwo, who used to do a financial spot on  the Danny Baker morning show on BBC Radio London. He advocated an investment strategy based on investing in high yeild shares. One of his regular picks was United Utilities. He advocated it as a nice boring utility that churned out handsome dividends. I never really gave it much thought, but I bought a small holding and have had them ever since. 

Over the past few years, I've not really paid much attention to it. It has sat there, waiting for a rainy day. I cashed a lot in during lockdown, out of necessity, to pay bills, but a good proportion still remained, United Utilities being one of them. Yesterday, I was writing an episode of my Environment Monday blog and I did a search on sewage in waterways. Feargal Sharkey's tweet popped up. I was horrified. Who am I to lecture anyone, if I am making a healthy profit on owning shares in one of the worst culprits. I actually felt quite sick and annoyed with myself. 

This morning, the first thing I did when I got up, was to sell them. I am annoyed with myself not to being aware of just how bad they were. It may make you laugh to learn that they immediately shot up. If I'd waited to this afternoon, I'd have made a fair few pennies more. But to be honest, I am pleased to be shot of them.

This is the second time I've dumped a share on ethical grounds. The previous one was Capita PLC, who I dumped when they signed the Barnet Outsourcing contract. That worked rather well for me.  I'd bought them at £2.45 and sold them in November 2012 for £7.61. They are now 14p. For me, having some sort of ethics worked well. I did think that a company that didn't do the right thing was not something I wanted to be associated with. I do wonder if companies like United Utlities are a sound bet financially either. Sooner or later a government, clearly not this one, will hold them to account for the environmental damage they are doing. Once they start having to pay for cleaning up their mess, and they are banned from penalising their customers for their outlandish profits, which pay those juicy dividends David Kwo liked so much, there will be no dividends and I cannot see the share price staying so high. 

My advice would be to dump them. I don't want to be anything to do polluting our rivers, let alone profiting from it.

*** Views expressed in this blog are personal opinions and are most definitely not financial advice. 

Sunday 14 April 2024

The Sunday Reflection #9 - Yesterday was a near perfect day!

 I awoke this morning with the song Perfect Day by Lou Reed running around my mind. After lockdown, when we realised that Allen Ashley was not able to sing with The False Dots for the foreseeable future, the band entered a state of suspended animation. Then in January 2021, as the country was in the second lockdown, tragedy struck. Our drummer, Rambo's son took his own life. Even worse, Rambo was isolating, having tested positive for covid, and so was totally unable to get any real support from friends. As soon as was possible, I gathered the band to get a rehearsal together, ostensibly to 'try out some new material, whilst Allen was unavailable', but in truth to get Rambo out of the house and give him something to think about other than the tragedy that had befallen his family. It worked as well as anything reasonably could in the circumstances. After a couple of hours playing, he said "That's the first time anything has taken my mind off what happened" or words to that effect and he seemed to have a bit of a spark that had been missing when he came down. I realised that we had to rehearse as often as possible and we had to try and play music that would raise his mood. That first rehearsal, we played a real mish mash of old False Dots songs, cover versions and jammed a few ideas. The only song that my limited vocal powers seemed to work with was a Ska song I'd co written with Allen Ashely called "Long Shot didn't die". This seemed to show the way forward. 

Last night, at The Bull Theatre, we supported The Silencerz. If you don't know, they are Lee Kix Thompson of Madness's other band. His son Daley is the vocalist. They are probably the best band you will see in the London Borough of Barnet. I love them and I'd have gone even if we hadn't been playing as support. It is always challenging being a support band, as most of the people are not there to see you and aren't interested. We are not a band that likes to be ignored and we pull out every stop to give the audience a show. Last night was a testimony to how far we've come on the journey since that first rehearsal after lockdown. We've put together a complete new set of material. Only Longshot and Acton Shock remain from when Allen was in the band. After we played, the complements came rolling in. After a quick beer in the bar, to chill out, we went back up and watched the Silencerz, who were amazing.  Playing with the band and watching a band I love are two of the things I enjoy most in the world, so it was a wonderful way to spend the evening. 

Even better than that, my other great passion is football. I support three teams. My lifelong love, who I've supported all of my life are Manchester City. As I was playing a gig at 8pm, I couldn't get up to see them thrash Luton 5-1, but I did watch the highlights on Match of The Day when I got home. The second team I support are Hadley FC, who play at Brickfiend Lane, by The Gate Pub. I joined about 150 other fans and saw them beat Biggleswade 2-1 in a tense and thrilling game, lit up by two excellent Hadley goals. Hadley's striker, Isaac Stones has been on fire since Xmas. Father Christmas did the business bringing him some scoring boots!  Normally, I have a couple of beers at Hadley and get the bus, but I was driving so it was zero alcohol Guinness. It is odd as my brain knows I'm drinking Guinness so I almost feel as if I'm tipsy. It is all rather strange. To top it all, the Sun was actually shining!

And my other club? Well ever since 1984, when a Welsh lad joined the company I was working for and mentioned that he was going to watch Wrexham play Barnet, followed by a pub crawl and a curry, I've been a part time Wrexham fan. Ever since Hollywood took an interest, everyone thinks I'm a glory hunter, but for years, I've been making trips to grounds like Barnet, Leyton Orient, Potters Bar, Wealdstone, etc to watch them. Since Hollywood got involved, it's become impossible to get tickets, but I retain a soft spot for them. To my delight, for all my North Welsh mates, they won back to back promotions yesterday. 

I even picked the winner in the Grand National. I wasn't going to put a bet on, but my nephew Max is coming for lunch and when I saw that "I am Maximus" was the favourite at 7-1, I decided to put a quid on it for fun! As the race was starting in a couple of minutes, I couldn't actually get logged on in time, but I had the pleasure in knowing I picked the winner!

After the gig, we went to Ye Old Mitre in Barnet for a couple of beers. It is a great pub and featured in my list of favourite pubs in London a couple of weeks ago. Before they moved to The Hive, Barnet FC were on my list of fave clubs, and we'd adjourn to the Mitre afterwards for a pint and then cross the road for a curry.  I now only go there when there's a gig at The Bull Theatre, but I do love it.  I was sitting in the pub with some friends, my wife and Tom and Rambo from the band. The band was formed in 1979 and Rambo initially joined in 1985. We've been firm friends ever since. Tom is our trumpet player and joined in 2023 and is a massive edition to the band. As we chatted, he was amused by the fact that Rambo joined the year he was born. It is strange to think that I wrote Not all she seems and Action shock before he existed. Tom not only plays trumpet pretty well and adds some percussion, he is very in tune with how I visualise the band's image and look. He dressed the stage last night with Hadley FC scarves and flags as well as posters for the Bring Barnet Back campaign, for the Barnet FC fans wishing to see the club back where they belong. Tom also suggested that we got some inflatable footballs, to release on the crowd when we played Saturday, our football anthem. It worked a treat! It is almost surreal how someone can turn up and fit in so well. It feels to me like there was a piece of the jigsaw missing and now it is perfectly in place. 

As I sat there, my mind went back to that first post covid rehearsal. We were all as rusty as hell and without Allen it seemed like we had no band identity. One of the covers we tried to bash out was Lou Reed's Perfect Day.In truth, we probably butchered it. The song is a beautiful piece of music, but I almost immediately realised that it was not suited to the band or my voice. As we chatted about the band with Tom, I thought back to that. One of the mistakes I used to make as a musician with the band was that I persisted with ideas that didn't work, didn't suit the band or were just plain idiotic. A big lesson has been that you shouldn't flog a dead horse. A song may sound great in your head, may be ideal for another band or artist, but if it doesn't wok for you, then move on. The time is spent more productively on ideas that come together and click. 

The band has really developed a lot. It appeals to my sense of humour that Perfect Day played no part in what was an almost Perfect Day for me, except that it did. One of the things that often happens to me after gigs is that when I fall asleep, I dream about the gig. So I found myself back onstage at The Bull Theatre. We had a second encore. What did we decide to do? We'd not prepared anything, so we did Perfect Day, with Tom singing. To my amazement, he had an amazingly accurate Lou Reed voice and the song sounded brilliant. Then the alarm clock went off at 8am, which is probably why I recalled the dream. I've been singing it ever since. It was pretty much as good as it gets at my age!

Anyway, on wards and upwards to the next gig. That will be on Friday 26th April at the Dublin Castle in Camden. We are supporting a brilliant Ska band, called Skaface. It will be a blast! As with The Silencerz, it''s a gig I'd go to anyway, even if we weren't playing. Quite a few members of the audience last night told us they'd be coming along, so it should be fun. Ska music is perhaps the best way to guarantee a fun evening. The Dublin Castle is probably the best pub venue in London and it always feels like an honour to play on the same stage that once was graced by the likes of Amy, Madness and Blur. The posters are still on the wall. 

And before then, on Friday we release our new single, We All Love a Party. 

Here is a trailer we made for this

Saturday 13 April 2024

The Saturday List #436 - My top ten ingredients for a great party!

 On this coming Friday, my band, The False Dots, will be releasing our new single. It's called we all love a party and is a humourous take on the family party culture of the 1970's, when I was a  wee nipper. To help launch the single we had a proper 1970's style party at the studio, with a selection of popular snacks and tipples from the era. It got me thinking, what makes a great party at your house? What better thing to put on a list. 

So here is my list of what you need to do.

1. Have a theme and tell guests it is compulsory! A great party transports you away from the drudgery of life, to a place where they will have the best night of the year. Think about what your friends like and enjoy. Think about what they talk about when they are talking about fun. A degree of dressing up always works. When people don disguises, they let their guard down. Looking at others costumes etc can be a great laugh. Of course you can go the other way and go super formal. Whatever you do though, make it different. Always try and have a 'keynote moment'. For a birthday, this is usually the cake. Put some thought into this moment. Have a special tune lined up, big the whole thing up. 

2. The front door/garden/drive. A great party is one where you suspend your inhibitions and be silly. You need to set the mood from the moment people can see your property. Many people make a painfully token effort, a couple of balloons, a sign saying "Aureana's party this way ->" etc. This is a complete waste of time. You need the guests to know that they are entering a world of fun and frolics. A bit of dressing of the entrance will set the mood. It means that people know they are expected to enjoy themselves. I had a friend who had a Dr Who themed party. He borrowed a Dalek and had it in the front garden threatening to exterminate guests who hadn't turned up in theme. You don't have to go to that extreme, but be a bit more imaginative than just a few balloons etc.

3. The party playlist. I am an advocate of vinyl, but I will concede that for parties, a good Spotify playlist works wonders. I've always found that a heavy dollop of Ska music works wonders. It is good fun and gets people dancing. 60's Northern Soul and 70's disco works equally well. Of course if you are having a punk rock party, then the music should be punk. The worst parties I've been to are ones where there is prog rock being played. Then again, I'm biased. Spend time putting the list together. See what people dance to. There is lots of great contemporary music that is good for partys, such as Daft Punk, The Zutons, Amy's Valerie etc. Put some thought into what your friends like, but try and keep it upbeat and danceable. 

4. Alcohol policy. This is something that you need to consider. The best party I ever had was one where we hired a mixologist. We provided the mixers, then told everyone they had to bring a spirit, preferably a weird an wacky one. We said anyone just bring cheap beer or wine would be asked to leave. It worked really well. The non drinkers brought various things for non alcoholic drinks, which were also delicious. We all have friends who bring their worst plonk and drink your best. Keep an eye on these scalliwags and devise a strategy to defeat their selfish ways. If you have teenagers, don't get overly strong lagers and keep an eye on the vodka etc. My Dad once advised me that if ever I had a party with teenage kids, get a couple of bottles of cheapish vodka and water them down. It will save you a lot of cleaning up. They tend to swipe the stuff they know. They don't know any better. Dad would also get Tesco's own brand brandy and put it in a marked Remy Martin bottle for those who brought rough plonk. Make sure there are good options for non drinkers. Not just Tesco own brand lemonade etc. If you make a bit of an effort it will be most appreciated.

5. Party food. This is often what your friends will judge you by. If you are going with a theme, then reflect it in the food. When we did our 70's party, we had mushroom vol-au-vonts, ham sandwiches, pineapple hedgehogs pork pies. Our friends appreciated the efforts. If you can't be bothered with preparing food, do stuff that doesn't require much washing up. Paper plates and pizza's works well. My daughter took this to a ridiculous level and bought a pizza oven, having a pizza party for her birthday. It was great. My tip is to try and avoid food with sauces that stain, as people spill these when they are enjoying themselves. One of the best parties I had, we simply got lots of french bread and a big selection of cheeses. It worked perfectly.

6. The Guests. This is perhaps the most important aspect. Your friends and family are what they are. Not everyone is an extrovert or a party animal, but you may still love them anyway. Go through the list and try and make sure there is something for everyone. You know your guests. If someone is a quiet ontrovert, who hates parties and is uncomfortable in crowds, but is your best mate, put some effort into doing something that makes them feel welcomed.

7. Kids. One of the biggest issues around parties are young children, be it yours or other peoples. Friends with kids often like to bring them, and other friends are riled by this. How do you square this circle? When our kids were little, we'd either have something in the garden for them, such as bouncy castle hires, or a bedroom with an Xbox etc in. If one couple are bringing kids, then get a few to and shunt them off out of the way. If there are just one lot, they get bored and become a pain in the bum. If there are a few, they will entertain themselves, if given the tools and space.

8. Badly behaved relatives. We all have badly behaved relatives, who disgrace themselves at every party. Usually they get drunk them Fight/Throw Up/Flirt inappropriately/Weep *delete as appropriate. If it is someone that you cannot leave off the list, then try and have some sort of strategy. The one's who start fighting are perhaps the most difficult. Sometimes they will do all of the things we don't want. My Dad always said "****** is coming, he always gets in a fight" so he'd try and ensure that he spent the evening with the rellies he didn't like, so that at least if someone got thumped, it was someone he didn't like. Have some sort of strategy. I know of one couple, who the female partner would always say she was feeling sick and needed to leave when her husband was about to thump someone. My mum told me later that this was her way of stopping him making a fool of himself. Everyone thought she was a real party pooper, but my mum was full of admiration for her drunkard management skills. Often it is the bad behaviour that you laugh about when the dust settles, so don't get to uptight. 

9. Neighbours. The biggest problem with noisy parties is complaints from neighbours. I've had loads and I have managed to stay onside with my neighbours. A note through the door a couple of weeks before works wonders. Sometimes they will say "please can you tone it down after 11pm" or something like that. Respect this. It will save you a lot of aggro. I also had one completely obnoxious neighbour, who was most disrespectful to all his neighbours. I had one party where I brought a band PA home and played punk rock until 5am. I'd told all of the other neighbours that I was doing this to annoy him. They all said that they were onside. He called the police at 4am, when they turned up, I said "He does this every week, are you going to come to see him?" They then asked him if it was true. He said "Yes,F**K him". At this point the police, asked the other neighbours, who had come into the street as well, who confirmed this. They laughed and left. 

10. Cleaning up. This is the worst bit. The best hint I can give is leave bins around with black bags in and ask guests to dump empty bottles and cans in them. This will save a few groans in the morning. We usually use paper plates and plastic cups. This avoids breakages. They can go in the bins and so less washing up.


As mentioned above, The False Dots release We All Love A Party on Friday 19th April. The band will be previewing the song tonight at The Bull Theatre in Barnet. We are supporting The Silencerz featuring Lee Thompson of Madness. There are only a few tickets left, the doors open at 7,30pm and we are on at 8pm, so get there early. We are also playing at The Dublin Castle with Skaface on Friday 26th July - tickets available CLICK HERE.

Here is a short trailer for the new single. 

Friday 12 April 2024

Friday Fun and local gigs in the Borough of Barnet - 12th April 2024

 As is the tradition with Barnet blogs, we start with a joke. This one is for you lovers of history!

Early in the night, the ghost of FDR appears.

Trump asks him, "How can I make America great again?"

FDR says," Think only of the people; don't promote hate & bigotry.”

Trump sneers and goes back to sleep.

A few hours later, he is awakened by George Washington's ghost.

Trump asks, "How can I make America great again?"

Washington replies, "Never tell a lie."

Trump laughs and goes back to sleep.

At 3 in the morning, he is visited by the ghost of Abraham Lincoln.

Again, Trump asks, "How can I make America great again?"

Lincoln responds, "Go to the theatre.” 

And on to local gigs. If you want to say Hi, nip along at 7.30pm to the Bull Theatre. My band, The False Dots are on at 8pm. There are only 8 tickets left though..... The Bull Theatre online ticket sales powered by TicketSource

Other local gigs this weekend

Tonight, Friday 12th

The Tailfeathers Duo (70s Soul, Funk and Disco) at Butchers Arms, Barnet

info icon9pm


info icon9pm - 11.30pmFREE!

That's all folks

Wednesday 10 April 2024

How Barnet Council does road repairs under Barnet Labour

On the 5th March 2024, I took the following pictures of a manhole at the junction of Bunns Lane and Woodcroft Avenue. This was a highly dangerous traffic hazard and posed a clear and present danger to road users, especially cyclists and motorbike riders. Not only that but the clanky manhole cover must have been highly disturbing for residents of both Woodcroft Avenue and the flats on Bunns Lane. It is not the only, or worst road hazard in Mill Hill, but it is one I walk past every day, so I am more than familiar with it. 

I took a second picture of it, to show the location clearly.  It is important to have such references, so that there can be no dispute. The manhole has say there for weeks since, and it seemed to me that the Council had no interest in fixing it. Many of my studio customers and other locals have mentioned it to me and all I've been able to say to them is that it has been reported. 

Imagine my joy when I saw a team of contractors setting up roadworks to fix it as I made my way to work.

When I returned home for lunch at noon, this was what greeted me. Can you believe it? I couldn't. Presumably Barnet Council have paid for this, which means that a bunch of contractors have made a tidy profit at my expense (and yours if you pay Barnet Council Tax). I took another picture, just to show the location. 

I can honestly say that this is the worst repair I've ever seen. Not only has it not really fixed the problem, it now means that if the Water company need access to the manhole, it is covered. You simply couldn't make this up.
In 2022, when I stood for council, one of the things I advocated was that the council inspect contractors work and don't pay when it is substandard. I'd appoint a chief civil engineer, who knows the industry and has a background working for contractors, so they know all the scams and fiddles.  It is the only way to get proper repairs done. Barnet Labour promised a new broom when they swept the Tories out. 

Sadly the truth is that this is how road hazards are getting repaired these days. As someone who manages a small industrial estate, I know how you get proper work done. The answer is that you keep an eye on your contractors. Labour will have run Barnet Council for two years next month. They took over a council in chaos from the Tories, who destroyed all of the mechanisms for running the authority properly. They have another two years to persuade us that they are fit to run the Borough. They have had a lot of slack from bloggers like me, as I knew the issues. The truth is that if they don't they will be booted out. I'm putting them on notice that the long honeymoon is over, if they don't start getting their act together. 

Tuesday 9 April 2024

The Amy Winehouse I knew at Mill Hill Music Complex Studios

On Sunday, Absolute Radio aired a special show dedicated to Amy Winehouse, coinciding with the release of her new film. I was asked to contribute to the show. I did this on the basis that I wanted to talk about Amy as the musician,  I knew, rather than her personal issues.  You can hear my contributions and the rest of the how here.

I wrote this article a couple of years ago, based on my personal experiences of Amy at Mill Hill Music Complex studios.

Let me start by giving some perspective on this. I have always felt slightly uncomfortable talking about Amy Winehouse. She was a studio customer from the days before she was famous until the day she died. Shortly before she passed, she'd called about doing some recordings. She wanted to do something stripped back, without the big production, but primarily where she was in control and calling the shots. We were sworn to secrecy about the project (no big deal, many artists do this). The sessions were booked provisionally for September 2011. When Amy passed, I was in France. When I came back, the saddest moment of my professional life was getting the Tippex and erasing the sessions from our diary.

I have never been so genuinely excited as when we took the booking. It's not often we get a Grammy winning artist wanting to record an album worth of material in our little North West London studio. They normally prefer Abbey Road. Although this was likely to be pre prod demo's, Amy would most likely have ended up recording the final versions at Abbey Road, she said that she needed a less formal enviroment to create and said that if it came out well enough she'd do it all with us.  It was still hugely exciting. She said she wanted to lock herself in the studio with a couple of musicians and simply create. 

It is a well known fact that Amy had her troubles. When we last spoke, it was not to a troubled soul. It was to someone who wanted to open a new chapter. She told me she'd been listening to lots of music and was feeling really inspired. This was not inspired in a whacky or drug addled sense. It was in a serious, professional and purposeful manner. She wanted a stripped back, unplugged vibe, more jazz based. She wanted to put out an album that people didn't expect. Something with a raw depth that maybe she felt the super polished previous albums and the pop tunes hadn't addressed. I was given the impression that almost no one knew about it. She most certainly didn't want her label involved until she had what she wanted in the can. She didn't want someone saying "This is a single, we need XXXXX to produce it now". 

I've waited ten years to really talk about this. Why? I was sworn to secrecy and that was important, but now, ten years later, I think the time has come to say this. There were two things that spurred this on. The first was that I watched 'reclaiming Amy' on Saturdya night. My thoughts? I was really disappointed. I get that her parents needed to set the record straight and that her friends wanted to put some perspective on her life and death. But what disappointed me was that we are yet to see something that tells the story of Amy, the musician. What made her tick, what made her so influential. What did the people who played with her, produced her, toured with her think. I am not interested in the stories of alcohol and drugs and breakdown. I am interested in how this little sparrow of a girl from North London became the most infuential singer of the last 20 years. When Amy first came down, she was a sassy, funny teenager. She would wear her white leopard skin print trousers and was shy and respectful. As she got used to us, the shyness gave way to cheeky banter. Occasionally she'd bring a guitar and ask us what we thought of  a song. Her Dad Mitch would hang around on occasion, chatting, drinking a coffee and telling us Amy was going to be massive. Mitch is a typical London cabbie and it was clear he adored his daughter. As she progressed, Amy started playing with better musicians. She got a management deal and when she was booked to play her first TV performance, she bounded into our shop, looked up at the wall and said "what is the blue Fender guitar like?". Our senior tech Fil Ross, replied "It plays well and has a good tone". She added "Sort out a gig bag and I'll pay when I've been to the loo". Fil set it all up so she could try it out. When she emerged, Fil said "Here, try it out". Amy replied "I trust you, I'm using it for filming a TV show tomorrow". That was Amy. Maybe she was too trusting. What you saw in that appearance was how I remember Amy best.

The guitar was a Mexican Strat. It did the job. I'm sure that when we watched that Jools Holland appearance, none of us really expected any of the things that happened as the story unfolded.  We knew she was a great singer, to be honest, we'd heard her sing better in the studio (she loved studio 9). I recall one moment, she was doing an important showcase, I can't recall if it was for a label, a management deal or whatever, but when she mentioned it, I suggested that we give her a free upgrade to Studio 7, our biggest and best room. We often do this for struggling artists on limited budgets, if the room isn't booked and they have important guests. This is as much so that the VIPs see the best of us as they see the best of the artist. Amy replied "Thanks, but Studio 9 works for us, I don't want to risk loosing the vibe". The show went well and she told me later "I really appreciated that offer, but music is all about vibe and we know that we always get it in studio 9". 

Several years later, at the height of her problems, I was in a pub in Camden with a couple of non music industry mates. Amy and her entourage were at another table, clearly not in the best shape. I didn't want to intrude on their space. As I went up to the bar, she approached me and said "Hi, how's it going in Mill Hill". I said things were great. She then said "Sorry we've not been down for a while, but Studio 9 is a bit too small for the setup I'm playing with at the moment". We had a little chat about this and that. The mates I was with said "Do you know Amy?" I replied "yeah, she's been a customer of the studio for years". One said "I've heard she's a bit of a nightmare". I replied "She isn't with us. She just came up and asked me to say hi to all the guys at the studio". 

As to the issues of addiction. It is clear that Amy had major problems with substances. I never really saw this side of her. Part of this was because we saw most of her before it became an issue. When I saw her in Camden, she was a bit worse for wear but was charm personified. I know a few people with serious abuse issues. From what I've seen, for them, their addiction was their promary reason for existing. Everything else, music, relationships, work, everything was simply a conduit to feed their addiction. I felt with Amy, this was never the case. I honestly don't believe she was aware of how badly alcohol was damaging her. I don't think you can really blame anyone, even Amy. I have long believed that we should educate children about addiction. We hear that alcohol can kill you, but we see friends getting bladdered night after night and they don't die. Maybe what we need to do is to learn the warning signs that it is starting to kill you. My view is that Amy had sorted out the Class A problem and was unaware that the booze was as dangerous. She wasn't someone planning to die, so I have to assume she didn't understand the damage it was causing. 

I said there were two reasons I felt that now is the time to write this. The first was the Reclaiming Amy film. The second was a conversation I had in The Bridge Tavern with our chief engineer Fil Ross last night. Fil had spent two days at the Finchley Community Carnival, doing the sound for a whole host of local artists. This was the first PA system we've done for a festival for nearly two years. After we put the gear back in our store, we retired to The Bridge Tavern for a debrief. Fil knew Amy best of anyone at the studios. He commented that all of the aspiring young female artists are really heavily influenced by Amy. We laughed as we recalled seeing her at The Torrington, long before she made it, never thinking that in 20 years time a whole bevvy of young artists would be onstage in a car park down the road from the site of the long gone and much missed venue, trying to be the next Amy. 

There are many singers who can put a really good Amy style performance on. What I think many miss though is that Amy wasn't just a singer who played to backing tracks. She cut her teeth with a band. She wrote songs. She played guitar. She knew the music of the greats. If she heard a track she liked, she wanted to understand why it sounded so good. She wanted to know how a singer got a certain sound. She wanted to understand why some songs worked so well for some singers. She wanted to know how she could fill her songs with her personality. When she covered a song, such as Valerie by The Zutons, she wanted to own it, to make it better. That is why she won five grammys. I'd love to see a documentary that told that story, if I could, I'd make one. I'd speak to musicians she worked with, the producers, the engineers. It would probably screen at 3am on Sky Arts, if anyone ever saw it. But for me as a musician, it would tell the story I really wanted to know about Amy. Not the drugs, the tantrums and the boozing. It would tell the story of why she was such a genius and how she became one.

The rest is pretty unimportant to me. She is and will always be the most important UK artist of the first decade of the century. Remember her for that as that is what matters. 

Monday 8 April 2024

So how does a music pub work?

A couple of weeks ago, I was speaking with one of the local publicans in High Barnet. He had put on a live band and the turnout was rather poor. He was asking whether I thought that putting on music was a good idea. I actually get asked this quite a lot. People who are unfamiliar with the way music works, often think that if they put a band on, lots of people will turn up, they will have a great nght and the pub will make lots of money. The truth is rather more complex. Firstly, you need the right genre of music for the pub.  Oddly you can have two similar pubs, next door to each other and music will work amazingly in one, but in the other, it won't. If a pub is going to get into music, if they want to do well, they need a clear strategy. There are three popular models. all of which work well.

The first is the proper music pub, which has a proper stage, lights, a sound engineer, a promoter and employs decent bands that want to be paid. Punters are charged an entrance fee.  To do that, you need a proper business plan and some serious investment. Many such pubs provide equipment for the band, if required, which negates the hassle of getting gear in and costs of ULEZ etc. If you do it well, it can transform your pub. My band has a residency at The Dublin Castle in Camden, which does rather well being a music pub. We get paid for our efforts, the promoter makes money and the pub is full. In the case of the Dublin Castle, the pub has hosted music for decades and has a pedigree. When lockdown hit and the Dublin Castle's future was at risk, music lovers from the Madness fan club community put their hands in their pockets to keep the pub going. That is how loved it is. Generally, the landlords of such pub have a commitment to the local music scene and understand the dynamics of it.

The second model is where the pub has space and regularly puts on bands on various nights, in the main bar, free of charge. The band generates extra turnover and the band gets paid out of profits of extra beer sales. Typically to pay a band £250 the pub would expect to sell maybe £1,400 worth of extra drinks. That's a couple of hundred pints at £7.50 a pint, so you'd need 50 punters having four pints to cover the band fee. A five piece band would be putting £50 each in their pocket. They'd be expected to bring equipment, such as a PA system and backline (drums, amps, etc). There are some great examples of pubs that do this well. The Wishing Well in Edgware have built up a loyal following doing all manner of such gigs. Again, the landlords of pubs operating this model are generally music lovers who enjoy helping musicians get heard. Arrangements are usually a little less formal.

The Third model, is more sporadic, but they put music on more sporadically and the pub is not primarily known as a music pub. Sometimes, this involves using a function room and working with promoters for certain nights. Some publicans see music as a thing for quieter nights. Many Jazz clubs etc, run on Sunday, Tuesday or Wednesday evenings, when the pub would otherwise be quiet. Often the publican will let the promoter use the space for free and let them keep any cash that is generated. Some pubs start this way, then get a bit greedy when they see successful promoters making a decent bit of cash. They don't see the work that a decent promoter has to put in. They also forget that the reason they got music in was because the pub was empty. It tends to be a cash driven thing for the landlords, who don't really have a passion for live music, but want more punters through the door.

To run a successful music pub, the landlord needs to either understand the way all of this works, or have someone on the team who does. Building a pub up to the status of the Dublin Castle either takes years or a lot of cash to build a profile. Having said that, music can transform the fortunes of a pub in a short time, if it is managed properly. A great example of this was The Chandos Arms in Colindale, which put music on fairly regularly, with Jazz on a Sunday Lunchtime and a folk night on a Monday and other regular events at the weekend. The former Landlady took a failing pub and transformed it to an award winning community pub. She was a musician and also had experience of music promotion, so had the right CV to do this.

The Bohemia in Finchley is also doing well hosting a Jazz night put together by the rather wonderful Jazz musician Ed Bentley. Being a well respected Jazz musician gives Ed access to some great musicians and this is a sure way to build an audience.

Another great little music bar is The Boogaloo in Highgate. This has all sorts of different events, comedy, quiz's etc. I rather like the Gospel brunch on a Sunday, featuring Americana style bands. The bar is owned my music royalty, with the Pogues having a hand. 

As someone who has promoted and played my fair share of gigs, most recently with the Mill Hill Music Festival, I have seen frst hand how both good and bad pub gigs are operated. I am always shocked at how rude and unpleasant some pubs can be to artists. I recall turning up to one gig at the appointed time, to be told that there was an 'overrunning' Irish wake and that we couldn't set up until they had stopped boozing. Later the landlord haggled about paying us as we'd not played for the agreed time, as he hadn't let us. Sadly, that pub is no longer open. Generally venues that look after artists, tend to generally be more successful.

If you are looking to put music on, there are certain rules that I think are worth following.

1. Pick a  genre of music that is suitable for the venue and the area. Make sure it is compatible with the patrons of the pub.

2. Work out how much you want to invest in music. Having in house gear (that works) makes putting on music easier. You will also need to invest in promoting the music. Work out how you will pay the bands and what is a reasonable number to break even etc. 

3. Don't expect it to be an overnight success. It can take a while to build up a reputation. 

4. When you engage a band, you get what you pay for, unless you get lucky with a young and up and coming band. If you engage artists that aren't particularly brilliant, don't be surprised if the reaction is lukewarm.

5. When you are engaging bands/artists, try and envisage what sort of audience will show up for them. If they contact you, ask to see live footage of gigs. Don't be too worried about poor sound quality, phones do not produce studio quality recordings. Do however see how they engage with the audience. If there is no audience to engage with, that might tell you a lot about the band.

6. Keep an eye out on what else is happening on nights you put music on. If there is an important football match, etc. This may affect the size of the crowd. You really need to understand the audience and what makes them tick to be a successful promoter.

7. Don't be disheartened if you have a bad night. We all do. DO however try and work out what went wrong.

8. Be aware that bands rarely have any real clue as to how many people will come and see them. You are the promoter and it is your job to get people down, if you are doing it properly.

Putting on music can be a very rewarding experience. If you do it well, you can make some cash doing it, although to get to the Harvey Goldsmith league of multi millionaire promoter is as hard as being the next Rolling Stones. It is primarily something you do because you love it, if you can make a living then all the better.


And whilst we are on the subject of music, my band, The False Dots, have a new single coming out on the 19th April. Here is a little taster. We also have a gig this Saturday at The Bull Theatre in Barnet, with The Silencerz. It will be a great night (Tickets available here).