Wednesday 28 February 2024

Rock and Roll Stories #8 - "Give up, you're S**T" - The joys of critical acclaim and press

Sally from Watford casts her verdict

I don't even remember who 'Sally from Watford' was. However, I was looking through "The False Dots File" AKA The Crapbook - my scrapbook of band clippings and thoughts and I found this note. It made me laugh and got me musing on the relationship between the bands, the music press and the roles of critics. BTW for clarity as I am dyslexic, her comment should have read "Give up, you're s**t". She wasn't the first critic to pass this, but she was the first we recorded. 

For the record, Line Up #4 of The False Dots was a very short lived version of the Dots from January 1980, with myself on guitar, Pete Conway on Bass and vocals and 'Deb' (Pete's fiancee) on drums. Pete had become a skinhead. Deb was also a skinhead. My Dad made a terrible faux pas mistaking Deb for Pete's younger brother. Deb and Pete had matching Suedehead cuts, shiny brown DM boots, turned up jeans, Harrington Jackets and Fred Perry shirts. When Pete went for something, he did it properly. He felt it was right to get the fashion references correct. My nickname was Tramp as I did the opposite. I'd rummage around in second hand shops, make my own T-Shirts and gete evrything deliberately wrong. 

At the second rehearsal with Deb, Sally from Watford turned up and passed her verdict. She was right. Deb only lasted two weeks, when she split with Pete, she disappeared, never to be mentioned again, except for Pete blaming her for Sally's harsh verdict.

Pete and myself had enormous ego's and we instantly thought that the reason anyone, especially Sally from Watford might dislike us, was simply because they were morons. We had an unshakeable belief that we were brilliant, even if all of the evidence was to the contrary.  I think all artists have to think like that to survive, however arrogant it sounds. You need a thick skin and I was reminded of this on Sunday. 

We went to see Rockabilly legends, The Delta's. I saw a mate of mine, Mandy Austin, who's brother Rob used to run Tape Copying Services, the cassette duplication service that was the backbone of the London underground music scene. Rob was a big fan of the band and put us on at a showcase gig he promoted at The Midland Arms (now the Claddagh ring). Mandy also promoted gigs at the Moonlight Club and put the Dots on. She got our single reviewed on the Dawn Parry show on 365 radio. The guest reviewer was legendary record producer Steve Lillilwhite - his verdict "It would be nice to hear the singer sing properly". I was a tad disappointed as I thought I did a fine job! I made a decision a very long time ago that I wasn't going to put on fake American accents or attempt Whitney Houston style vocal gymnastics. I want our songs to sound like North London. I think they suit the songs, but I've been around long enough to know that someone like Steve probably has a point. So what do you do? When Sally from Watford or Steve Lilliwhite doesn't like your music, do you give up and cry or do you say "You know what, I believe in what we do". 

So here is your chance to be a critic. Sadly I don't own a Tardis, so you'll never know if Sally from Watford was right, but you can decide whether you agree with Steve Lilliwhite. Have a listen and let us know

The False Dots have had an interesting relationship with the press over the years. I've mentioned before our 1st review, in Xpert-I fanzine in August 1979. It said "The only thing more immature than their sense of humour is there music". I wish I could find a copy of it. 

In 1980, we started to get reviews etc in the local press in North London. They were always really supportive and we got great reviews. A series of writers at the Barnet Times and it's various titles such as Kevin Black, Joy Bentley and Clarence Mitchell all adopted us and liked what we did. I think they recognised that The False Dots were a band that drove the local music scene. We were always organising gigs, getting other bands on with us and putting on stunts that gave them a story. 

The music press proved a far more difficult nut to crack. All we really got was a few fleeting mentions in the gig listings. The one review we got was when we supported Tokyo Olympics at The Moonlight Club. I had a long chat with the reviewer, who told me he'd mention us if I gave him a tenner. He was true to his word. In the review it said "a local band called the False Dots were the support. They had a large suburban crowd, who followed them to the pub when Tokyo Olympics started, clearly not a bunch interested in music". I saw the reviewer a couple of times after and he ran away. On the third occasion, I collared him and he gave me my tenner back. I was so annoyed that I never kept the review. 

There were a few fanzines that made a mention in the early years. Generally these were positive, but most didn't know what to make of The False Dots. When Eleanor was singing with the band, one said "A pleasant enough sound, apart from the singer, who sounds like a cat being strangled". I chose not to share that with the poor love, I was tempted to when she attempted to sack me from the band for being no good in the Summer of 1983. I guess in light of that, things could be worse. In truth, when the band really needed press, I didn't properly understand how it all worked. I learned the hard way what you need to do. 

By the 1990's I was in band management. I was managing a band called The Sway. They were a pretty good band and had what I thought was an excellent single called "Going Blind". It featured Helen Terry on vocals. I bumped into a freelance writer, who did bits for the NME. I won't name him. I suggested that he come down and write a review of the band, saying they were brilliant. He said "I live in Essex, it'll cost me a tenner to come down and have a beer and watch them and I'll only get £25 if its published." I replied I'll give you £50 if you come down and get it. £25 on the night and £25 when it appears. He replied "OK". It worked. I realised that if you want a good review, a few readies helps no end. Have a listen, was it worth £50 to promote them?

Sadly these days, there is no such thing as a music press. It's all about podcasts, playlists etc. There is nothing to cut out and put in the scrapbook. The only way you really can judge how you are doing is look at the clicks or count the punters at gigs. We are doing OK on both counts. Our gigs get a decent crowd and our videos get watched. The most successful has been The Burnt Oak Boogie, which has had over 5,000 organic views.

It's got 23 nice comments and 66 thumbs ups, which I am told is rather good! I am told that now the secret is to get 'Influencers to like your music'. For a band like The False Dots, the influencers that might result in a hit are an elusive bunch! We are a niche band, we do well in small venues in North London and people who come to see us tend to come back. One of my dreams was to see The False Dots on the cover of the NME, but the NME bit the dust. I almost feel sorry for the new, up and coming bands today. How can you feel vindicated and that you've made it. I suppose being on telly at Glasto would do nicely, but for us back in the day, it would be a mention in the NME (preferably on the front page). Iconic shows such as Top of The Pops that your granny might catch you on have long gone. 

Rock and Roll is and always was a dirty business. Young, up and coming bands that make it not only have to be good, they need savvy managers, who understand how to grease the wheels of the promotion and know the people to bung the wedge to. I do wonder how this now works that no one wants to deal in cash!


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